‘There are no clear numbers on the amount of people who suffer stress-related hair loss although hair loss itself is very common’, says Dermatologist Dr Martin Wade. “While work-related stress is a factor, major emotional and physical stress can often be a clear trigger”.
‘While you can suffer hair loss as a result of taking some drugs, extreme diets and hormonal issues, there is very clear evidence that a major trauma such as the loss of a loved one, bankruptcy, an operation, infection or childbirth can spark hair loss,’ he says.
Thinning of the hair through stress is most commonly a condition called telogen effluvium. Our hair does not grow continuously, but goes through distinct three-month phases of growth and rest, known as the anagen and telogen stages. After a trigger event, the stress on the body shocks all of the hair into telogen — the resting phase — during which old hair is shed but none is regrown from those particular hair follicles.
‘At any one time 13 per cent of the hair is in a resting phase (telogen) when it would automatically be replaced by new growth. Anogen (growth) hairs are triggered into telogen by an event, so three months following the event hair begins to shed and get noticably thinner,’ explains Dr Wade. ‘Three months after that, it normally recovers though this can occasionally become a chronic problem.’
Stress can also cause alopecia areata, random bald patches anywhere on the scalp, or the less common diffused alopecia areata that causes hair loss all over the scalp and is often mistaken for telogen effluvium. ‘This is an auto-immune condition, when stress can trigger the immune system to attack the healthy white blood cells are targeted,’ explains Dr Wade. ‘Again we don’t know why.’
When the source of stress goes away, telogen effluvium will generally cease and hair will regrow. If it becomes a chronic condition, then it is important to see a specialist to rule out any other underlying medical conditions causing the hair loss. They may recommend topical minoxidil which is available from behind the pharmacy counter and which will help stimulate hair regrowth. ‘Think of it as lawn fertiliser,’ says Dr Wade. ‘We tend to use topical steroids, steroid injections, topical immunotherapy or immunosuppressing medications for treating alopecia areata although when the patches are small they can recover themselves.’