Small amounts of hair loss every day are normal—the average person loses around 100 hairs a day because of hair’s natural growth cycle. But if you notice that more hair is falling out than usual, something much more serious is probably going on.
One thing a lot of people don’t realize can contribute to hair loss is stress. Minor, everyday stress can add up and weigh on you, turning into severe, chronic stress that triggers a stress-related hair loss condition. Generally, chronic stress can lead to one of three major hair loss conditions: telogen effluvium, alopecia areata or trichotillomania.
If you’re experiencing sudden hair loss, take a close look at your lifestyle and recent sources of stress to identify whether one of these problems is happening to you.
1. Telogen effluvium
Telogen effluvium is a condition that affects the natural growth cycle of hair. It can be triggered by severe stress as well as poor nutrition, illness and trauma. These triggers can “shock” the system and disrupt your hair’s ability to grow because of hormone imbalances.
Once triggered, telogen effluvium forces hair into its resting—or telogen—phase earlier than it should. After around a month, this hair will fall out prematurely. Generally, telogen effluvium will not cause balding. Hair is more likely to appear thinner, since not all of the hair will be affected at once and the hair that is affected will fall out gradually.
Reversing telogen effluvium
Fortunately, telogen effluvium is a temporary condition that is completely reversible. Hair typically begins to grow back after a few months, although it may take months or even years to return to its former length.
Working through your stress or trauma in a healthy way may help you cope and keep stress at bay to prevent telogen effluvium or reverse it faster. Generally, using stress-relieving techniques, eating a healthy diet and protecting your immune system, will aid in alleviating telogen effluvium-related hair loss.
In addition to chronic stress, telogen effluvium can sometimes stem from nutritional deficiencies. If you’ve been diagnosed with telogen effluvium, your doctor may recommend putting more iron, zinc and vitamin D into your diet. These vitamins and minerals are essential for promoting hair growth. Taking a biotin supplement may also help, as biotin can speed up follicle growth by increasing keratin production.
2. Alopecia areata
Another relatively common stress-related hair loss condition is alopecia areata. This condition is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s hair follicles, causing widespread hair loss and potentially baldness. Hair typically falls out in small, round patches, but it can fall out completely on the head as well as on the body.
Experts aren’t entirely sure what causes the condition, but stress is believed to be one trigger. Once the condition is triggered, hair loss can occur quite rapidly—even within a few days. Alopecia areata is more visible than other hair loss conditions because the immune system attacks a section of hair follicles all at once. This creates readily noticeable bald patches.
Reversing alopecia areata
Alopecia areata does not have a cure, so there is no 100-percent-effective way to reverse hair loss caused by the condition. Although the hair follicles remain active, hair is not guaranteed to return. Many people with alopecia areata discover that their hair will regrow and then fall out again over time.
A few different approaches may help support healthy hair growth. Your doctor may prescribe conventional medications to block immune system attacks and help hair grow back. Some nutritional supplements can support the health of hair follicles and minimize damage from the immune system. Not all therapies will work for everyone with alopecia areata, so it’s important to work with your healthcare provider to find an option that is successful for you.
The third major cause of stress-related hair loss is a psychological condition called trichotillomania, which is characterized by an intense urge to pull out your own hair. Experts believe the condition can be triggered by stress and anxiety as well as boredom, loneliness and other negative feelings or mood disorders.
Trichotillomania often affects the hair on the scalp, but it may also lead to pulling of the eyebrows and other body hair. This condition is different from telogen effluvium and alopecia areata in that it is active, rather than the hair passively falling out on its own. However, most people with the condition are unable to control their urges to pull.
A common misconception about trichotillomania is that people with this condition can stop pulling anytime they want. While the condition is active instead of passive, trichotillomania is no easier to treat than telogen effluvium or alopecia areata. A healthcare provider will need to treat the patient’s mental health, just how they would treat the patient’s hair follicles or immune system.
Trichotillomania is considered a chronic condition, meaning it can affect you for the rest of your life. Some people experience short or long periods of hair pulling followed by a period of no pulling at all, while others will always have the urge to pull. Unfortunately, there is no true cure for the condition, but it can be treated with varied success.
Many people with trichotillomania find relief from the condition through behavioral therapy, which aims to help you understand the condition’s triggers as well as monitor and reverse your urge to pull. Some medications are also an option, although they usually help treat underlying mood disorders that often occur alongside trichotillomania.
Taking care of your hair
Because there are multiple ways stress can trigger hair loss in men, women and children, it’s important to monitor your stress levels and find ways to relieve stress as often as possible. Additionally, pay attention to the ways stress impacts other aspects of your daily life, including your diet, sleep and health, to prevent those things from taking a toll on your hair, too.
Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in October 2019. It has been updated to include more relevant and comprehensive information.