It has been said that stress can make you go gray, or cause you to lose your hair. But can it?
Even though you sometimes feel like tearing your hair out because of personal, economic, and work-related stress, stress isn't likely to be the direct cause of hair turning gray. Some studies have shown that unavoidable damage to the DNA in cells that produce the pigment responsible for hair color is most likely the culprit. But can stress accelerate the aging process and, as a result, cause you to go gray sooner than you otherwise would? Right now, the answer is debatable.
"We have all witnessed the graying hair of many past presidents," says Amy McMichael, MD, professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Perhaps over long periods of stress, there may be an acceleration of gray hair in some people." But, she points out, that idea is mainly speculation. "I don't know of any studies showing this," she says, "and I'm not sure I have a scientific answer."
If the jury's still out on the question of stress turning hair gray, then what's the verdict on stress and hair loss? Could there be a relationship?
What's Stressing You
Paradi Mirmirani, MD, a dermatologist with the Permanente Medical Group in Vallejo, Calif., says it all depends on what type of stress you're talking about.
"Stress because you're late to work or you've got a heavy workload is not going to cause you to lose hair," she says. Short-term, everyday stress is not going to affect your body in such a way that your hair falls out. It takes something larger to do that. "Something that causes you to lose sleep," Mirmirani says, "or changes your appetite and raises the level of stress hormones."
McMichael puts it more bluntly. "There has been, for my entire life, this mythical connection between stress and hair. It's absolutely ridiculous." McMichael says there is no evidence to support the idea that just because you had a few stressful days last week your hair will fall out this week. "It doesn't even work that way," she says.
Stress and Hair: The Hair Cycle
A normal head of hair contains about 120,000-150,000 strands of hair.
Usually, at any one time, about 90% of those hairs are in a growing phase, growing by about 1/2 inch each month. This phase lasts for two to three years.
At that point, a hair will go into a resting stage. This "rest" lasts for 3 to 4 months before the hair falls out and is replaced by a new one.
"Typically, people shed about 100 hairs a day," says Carolyn Jacob, MD, founder and medical director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology. "Most people don't even notice."