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Chronic Stress Can Lead to Hair Loss — New Research Reveals How

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Stress is the body's way to manage immediate threats to survival. While many hormones, chemical reactions, and nervous signals are associated with stress, Cortisol is the hormone most centrally involved in the sensation of stress. Stress is designed to get us out of tricky situations and back to a state of safety and balance. Cortisol is an absolutely necessary component of the hormone cascade, but it is also very prone to imbalance. This imbalance manifests in many ways but is most recognizable as Chronic Stress.

Stress Changes Physiological Priorities

Stress puts the human body and mind into fight-or-flight mode, which is a higher state of vigilance that prepares us to make split-second decisions and actions which serve to protect us in the present. While these physiological changes greatly help us concerning immediate threats, it comes at the expense of our long-term wellness. In ideal circumstances, the influence of stress is brief and fleeting, but human evolution, combined with the fast pace of the modern world, puts us in a position where we are faced with constant stress, which depletes vitality.

Cortisol and Hormone Imbalance

The effects of chronic stress are widespread. For example, the over-production of Cortisol comes at the expense of other critical hormones, such as Testosterone and Human Growth Hormone. Stress depletes levels of hormones essential to our long-term survival. Stress also leads to various issues related to fatigue, depression, and lack of energy.

Why Does Stress Lead to Hair Loss?

Along with all these other negative impacts, Chronic Stress is strongly associated with hair loss. While stress and hair loss have been associated with one another for quite a while, we're just beginning to learn the specific mechanisms which cause stress to induce hair loss in men and women.

The cycle of hair growth occurs in three phases. Hair grows from the follicle until it reaches a certain length (anagen phase). Then hair growth stops, and the base of the hair degrades (catagen phase). Finally, the hair is lost, setting the stage for new growth (telogen phase).

Hair growth is triggered by the activity of Hair Follicle Stem Cells. These stem cells contain the instructions for hair growth. During the telogen phase, these cells are inactive. It's been hypothesized that stress prevents Hair Follicle Stem Cell activity, and recent research begins to explain why. Harvard University researcher Doctor Ya-Chieh Hsu was the leader of this investigation, which was published in the science journal Nature in March.

Lab Tests Evaluate Effects of Corticosterone on Mice

Dr. Hsu's research was conducted on lab mice. Stress hormones are produced by the adrenal gland. Humans make Cortisol, and rodents have a similar hormone known as Corticosterone. Researchers tested the effects of Corticosterone on hair growth by removing the adrenal glands from test mice. After culling the influence of Corticosterone, hair growth sped up tremendously. Furthermore, the mice kept growing hair quickly even as they got older. Introducing Corticosterone to these mice via feeding restored normal hair growth patterns.

Another group of mice was subjected to stressful conditions for a number of weeks. This caused natural Corticosterone levels to increase. This diminished hair growth and led to a longer telogen phase. These tests provide evidence of the suppressive effects of Corticosterone on hair growth.

The next step was to determine the biological mechanism by which Corticosterone influenced hair loss. Through trial-and-error removal of Corticosterone receptors, scientists determined that Corticosterone did not act directly upon Hair Follicle Stem Cells but on the dermal papillae cells at the base of the follicle. Ultimately, they discovered that Corticosterone suppresses the production of GAS6 from the dermal papillae, which was directly responsible for the activation of Hair Follicle Stem Cells. Introducing GAS6 to test mice led to hair growth even under the influence of elevated Corticosterone.

Before we can adequately treat a health issue, it's important to understand the cause of the condition. By learning more about how stress influences hair loss, we can develop new mechanisms to preserve and restore hair growth. It's also likely that this study will help us learn more about how stress impairs growth and regeneration processes in other tissues as well.

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