When people experience hair loss as a result of alopecia areata, their GPs usually explain that they have an autoimmune disorder which is causing their hair to fall out.
Autoimmune disorders come in many guises and have multiple triggers, but one of the most commonly observed is stress. Surprising as it seems, severe stress can lead to everything from depression and asthma to total baldness from head to toe.
Notoriously complex disease
In cases of alopecia areata, doctors are often at a loss to explain exactly what is going on as the disorder is notoriously complex and is full of uncertainties – such as knowing whether or not the condition will linger or heal itself. All that is really known about the mechanism of autoimmune alopecia is that, once triggered, it causes the hair growth cycle to suddenly pause in its resting phase for an un-determinable period of time.
Now scientists at Michigan State University have made some new discoveries about the body’s response to stress which may one day prove beneficial to those investigating new autoimmune disorder treatments, including those for the various severe phenotypes of alopecia areata which are currently untreatable.
Adam Moeser, an associate professor who specialises in stress-induced diseases at the University, has been investigating how certain types of stress interact with immune cells and can regulate how the cells respond to allergens, ultimately causing physical symptoms.
The study he led showed how a stress receptor named CRF1 can transmit signals to certain immune cells known as mast cells and control how they defend the body. In stressful situations, he says, mast cells become activated in response, and CRF1 tells them to release chemical substances that can lead to inflammatory and allergic diseases.
An article on the university’s website explains that one such chemical substance is histamine, which is produced by the body to get rid of invading allergens like pollen. In an ideal scenario, the allergic reaction is a normal response and helps the body to rid itself of things that cause harm. But severe allergies – as well as excess stress – amplify the response, resulting in far more extreme responses such as trouble breathing and anaphylactic shock.
When Moeser removed CRF1 receptors on mice, he found that they had lower histamine levels, less disease and better protection against stress. He says that the results could change the way that multiple autoimmune disorders are treated.
Stress can cause various hair loss conditions
Stress has a generally drying effect on the body, which means it can easily show in your skin and hair, but it is also more commonly linked to hair loss than many people realise.
As well as being an oft-suspected trigger for alopecia areata, intense emotional or physical stresses can also play a part in a temporary condition known as telogen effluvium. When there is a sudden shock or trauma, this may result in the patchy hair fall and bald spots associated with alopecia areata. When there are high stress levels, especially over a prolonged period, the body may divert resources away from non-essential functions such as hair growth, towards more critical functions such as those of the heart and lungs. When this happens, the hair is prematurely pushed into the telogen – resting – phase of its growth cycle, resulting in shedding from all over the scalp around three months after the condition’s onset, leaving behind clearly thinning hair.
Telogen effluvium generally lasts no longer than six months, but when it does, it becomes reclassified as chronic telogen effluvium or diffuse hair loss. Both conditions can clear up naturally though treatment is also available to help accelerate this process.
What is perhaps more surprising is that a bout of telogen effluvium can exacerbate hair loss in cases of both male pattern baldness and female pattern hair loss. Furthermore, it can also prematurely initiate their onset in people with an underlying genetic predisposition. As these hereditary conditions only cause thinning hair around the top of the scalp and hairline, they can be hard to spot during telogen effluvium given this affects the whole head but may explain why some areas are not regrowing as well as others.
With modern life becoming increasingly stressful, this is also thought to be a key reason that young men and women are developing hairloss at an increasingly early age. In 2017 two separate studies further confirmed a link between oxidative stress and premature male pattern baldness in particular.
Knowing this perhaps better explains the stereotypical image of a stressed-out person losing their hair.
If you are concerned about sudden hair fall or regularly losing more hair than normal, a professional diagnosis from a hair loss specialist can be a big help. Once you know what you are dealing with, it often provides peace of mind from the uncertainty, as well as gaining valuable insights into how to move forward. Belgravia offers a range of hair loss treatment courses tailored to the needs of each individual, as well as a number of hair growth booster products. When it comes to alopecia areata treatment, this is currently only suitable for people aged 16 and over who have the scalp-only form of the disorder. It involves a customised hair regimen based around the use of recommended topical high strength minoxidil formulations from those available at Belgravia’s in-clinic pharmacies, paired with additional boosters where appropriate.
The Belgravia Centre is the leader in hair loss treatment in the UK, with two clinics based in Central London. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation Form from anywhere in the UK or the rest of the world. View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which are the largest collection of such success stories in the world and demonstrate the levels of success that so many of Belgravia’s patients achieve. You can also phone 020 7730 6666 any time for our hair loss helpline or to arrange a free consultation.