How you navigate daily life stressors can have a significant impact on your overall health, but especially your hair health. Adapting to and managing stress, whether physical, mental, or emotional, is important for staying centered during life’s challenges.
Stress tends to be the leading cause of premature hair loss, excess thinning, and developing a straw-like, brittle texture. After a stressful event or period in life, hair loss usually becomes visible three months later due to the nature of the hair growth cycle.
Once the stressor has been removed or is well managed, significant hair can be seen at 6-12 months. Hair is a physical representation of the current state of health of the body. During times of stress and illness, resources and nutrients are diverted from hair to other bodily functions needed for survival.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is the stress hormones released by adrenal glands daily in a rhythmic, diurnal pattern. Levels of cortisol are highest in the morning at 7-8 am, giving you the energy to wake up and start your day. As the day progresses, levels taper and then drop at night as the body goes through a detox and repair phase while you sleep.
Cortisol is the main hormone released during stressful situations when the fight or flight response is activated.
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Proven Ways to Reduce Your Cortisol Levels
Adrenal Fatigue and the HPA Axis
The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, are involved in hormone regulation, cortisol production, electrolyte balance, managing inflammation, regulating sleeping and waking cycles, balancing blood sugar, and controlling the stress response.
Adrenal fatigue can occur when chronic physical, mental, or emotional stress causes the glands to work excessively and inefficiently, leading to an imbalance of cortisol hormones.
The hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA axis) is a cascade of signals from the brain to the adrenal glands, which is responsible for how you react to stress, including mobilizing the fight or flight response.
Excess activation of this pathway leads to elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol, causing you to feel tired, irritable, and on constant alert. Once these reserves have been depleted, then levels of adrenaline and cortisol drop, leaving you feeling exhausted.
How Stress and Cortisol Effect Hair
Stress causes a dysregulation is adrenal hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. It causes inflammation at the site of the hair follicle, increases oxidative stress and DNA damage to cells, impacts collagen production, and disrupts the normal hair growth cycle.
Chronic stress and high levels of cortisol signal hair follicles to shift from their growth phase to resting phase leading to hair shedding, thinning, and delayed regrowth. Stress at the cellular level damages hair follicles and stops melanocytes from renewing themselves, leading to premature aging and grey hair.
Many additional factors can contribute to hair loss and should be investigated to determine the underlying cause.
Other possible factors include genetic predisposition, an imbalance in reproductive hormones, environmental toxin exposure, poor digestive health leading to decreased absorption of nutrients, and dietary intake lacking in key vitamins and minerals.
Lifestyle Habits for Stress Management
1. Whole Foods Diet
- An anti-inflammatory diet high in phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber is key to balancing hormones, lowering cortisol, and stabilizing blood sugar levels.
- Avoid processed foods, excess sugar, trans fats, caffeine, and alcohol, contributing to elevated levels of inflammation.
2. Meditation & Mindfulness
- Meditation, mindfulness practices, and breathing exercises shift the body from the sympathetic nervous system response to parasympathetic response. They turn off the stress response, promote relaxation, and relieve muscle tension and anxiety.
3. Physical Activity
- Regular exercise can help manage stress levels and balance hormone levels.
- Avoid excessive training, which can cause even more cortisol to be released and further fatigue the adrenals.
4. Time in Nature
- Spending time outdoors in nature, such as in the forest, near the ocean, or gardening promotes relaxation, stress reduction and balances the body’s natural cycles and rhythms.
- During the normal circadian rhythm, cortisol levels rise in the early morning hours and then drop low at night before and during sleep. People with adrenal fatigue and excess cortisol levels can feel tired during the day but wired and anxious at night.
- Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night to reset your circadian rhythm and bring hormones back into balance.
Adrenal Supportive Supplements
Adaptogens are botanicals herbs that work on the HPA axis to help the body better respond to stress. They help to maintain balance during times of physical, mental, and emotional stress. Adaptogens restore vitality, regulate immunity, calm inflammation, increase stamina, and restore hormone balance.
They help the body cope with the demands of everyday life and provide a sense of calm and energy on a deep internal level. Adaptogens especially effective for hair loss include the following:
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a calming, nourishing adaptogen and general health tonic. It helps to balance the production of hormones and has been shown to lower excess levels of cortisol (1).
It supports the adrenal glands and promotes a healthy hair cycle with thicker, faster growth. Ashwagandha reduces anxiety, balances mood, and improves sleep quality. It enhances mental performance through improved memory and learning and supports physical performance through increased energy and overall strength.
[Read: Benefits of Ashwagandha]
2. Holy Basil
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), also known as Tulsi, works as an adaptogen to help the body
manage stress and become more resilient. It has antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties, enhances cognitive performance, and promotes better mental-emotional balance. Holy basil lowers elevated cortisol and regulates blood sugar levels. It has potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects (2).
[Read: Benefits of Holy Basil Tea Benefits]
Astragalus is an adaptogen that strengthens the entire endocrine system and immune system. It works as an immunomodulator to adjust the immune system based on the needs of the body.
Astragalus increases white blood cells (WBCs) and boosts immunity during times of illness and infection, as well as decreases inflammation when it becomes excessive in the body. Due to its antioxidant properties, it prevents free radical damage and has anti-aging effects (3).
4. Panax Gingseng
Panax ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng, is a warming, energizing, potent adaptogen. It enhances the body’s ability to react and adapt to stress (4). Ginseng’s effects may be due to saponin compounds that alter neurotransmitter levels, causing a reduction in noradrenaline released as part of the stress response.
Ginseng has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that reduce oxidative stress, improve mental and physical performance, and strengthen the immune system.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Siberian ginseng, is an adaptogenic herb that protects the body from the negative effects of physical and mental stress. It provides relief and recovery from anxiety and burnout while also boosting vitality and immunity. Eleuthero’s stimulating effects make it great for enhancing stamina and endurance (6).
Turmeric contains the bioactive compound curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant effects for lowering free radical damage (7).
Its anti-inflammatory properties lower inflammatory cytokines, which have been shown to interfere with hair growth. Turmeric enhances liver detox pathways helping to remove toxins burdening the cellular health of the body.
[Read: Benefits of Turmeric]
Spirulina is a dense nutrient superfood high in plant-based protein. It contains vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate), vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium, beta-carotene, and GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) (8).
Spirulina is a powerful antioxidant that supports cellular health, promotes detox pathways, and provides nutrients to nourish the adrenal glands.
Vitamins & Minerals
1. B Complex
B vitamins are water-soluble and easily depleted with stress, so they need to be replenished regularly. Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) supports adrenal gland function and helps the body adapt to stress.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) supports the adrenal glands, production of calming neurotransmitters, and helps with balancing cortisol levels. Vitamin B7 (biotin) has decreased excess hair shedding and increased overall hair growth.
[Read: Best B Complex Supplements]
2. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin easily depleted by stress. It protects against the effects of free radicals, which can lead to damage of the cellular structure of hair, hair loss, and greying (10).
Vitamin C is involved in collagen formation, supports the resilience of hair follicles, and helps to restore the hair growth cycle. It nourishes the adrenal glands, supports healthy immune function, and has anti-inflammatory properties.
Magnesium is a beneficial mineral for supporting and nourishing the adrenal glands. Stress tends to deplete nutrients, so ensuring levels are optimal will help to nurture hair during times of stress. Magnesium is great for calming an overactive nervous system and lowering anxiety.
Zinc is an essential mineral and cofactor beneficial for hair, skin, and nail health. It provides nutrition for hair fiber construction, inhibits hair follicle regression, and accelerates hair follicle recovery. Nutritional deficiencies in zinc should be addressed to support strong, healthy hair.
[Read: Foods High in Zinc]
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult with their medical doctor before starting any new products.
- If you are currently taking prescription medication, talk to your doctor about possible drug-herb interactions before starting.
- Caution should be used with adaptogens in autoimmune conditions due to their modulating effects on the immune system.
- Avoid the use of stimulating adaptogens in the evening, which can lead to insomnia.
About The Author:
Dr. Sierra Padmoroff is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor, Lifestyle Transformation Coach, and Holistic Healer. She is a current member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians (WANP).