If you’ve noticed thinning hair recently, it may not be all in your head (literally). It’s well known that certain medical conditions, like alopecia, can cause hair loss in women, but what is less often discussed is how certain lifestyle and biological factors can also lead to you feeling like every time you shower, you lose an entire layer.
If your hair is shedding more than normal right now, there’s no need to panic. Once you learn about the hormonal imbalances and lifestyle factors that can disrupt your ‘do, you can also take steps to reverse them.
Stress & Hair Loss
Americans’ stress level is higher than ever this year, according to a survey done by The American Institute of Stress. This is a big problem for our overall health as a prolonged spike in the stress hormone, cortisol, sends ripple effects through the entire body, messing with your sleep and sex drive, causing stomach aches, creating jaw tension, and more. It can even lead to hair loss.
“There are three main phases to the hair growth cycle,” Dr. Geeta Yadav, founder of Facet Dermatology, explains. “Anagen, or the active growth phase; catagen, or the transitional phase; and telogen, the resting phase. (Some would say there's a fourth phase, exogen, which is part of the resting phase and is when the hair sheds.)”
Perhaps this goes without saying, but you have strands in various phases at any given time, “otherwise, you'd see all your hair fall out simultaneously,” Yadav says.
But when you undergo a period of major stress (like, you know, a global pandemic, increased work anxiety, or an endless bad news cycle) the normal hair cycle gets interrupted, and, “more of your hair is pushed quickly from the anagen phase to the telogen phase, cutting off hair growth and accelerating your hair's natural propensity to shed.”
If stress is the cause of your hair loss, you will typically start to notice a problem about three months after the period of stress began and sent a message to your body that caused a new crop of hair to abruptly enter the resting phase. Following its normal cycle, three months later, all that hair begins to shed, filling your brush and collecting in the shower drain.
Hormones & Hair Loss
As you may have suspected from the cortisol tip-off, there’s a strong link between hormones and hair loss. Everything from thyroid hormones to estrogen and testosterone can cause your hair to thin and fall out.
If you’ve ever watched clumps of your hair collect in the shower drain after having a baby, you know firsthand that hormones can alter hair growth in both directions. Postpartum hair loss is the unfortunate flipside of glorious pregnancy hair. You can thank falling levels of estrogen for the postpartum shedding.
There are two main types of thyroid disorders, and both can potentially cause hair loss. “When dysfunctional, the thyroid gland will either secrete too much hormone (hyperthyroidism) or an insufficient amount (hypothyroidism),” Dr. James S Calder, Hair Transplant Surgeon with Ziering Medical says. “Hair loss and thinning are most commonly associated with hypothyroidism, although it can occur with overproduction of thyroid hormone as well.” The good news is that this type of hair loss can generally be reversed when your thyroid hormone levels are re-balanced.
People who experience baldness generally have higher levels of DHT, a hormone that is a by-product of testosterone. DHT shrinks hair follicles and shortens hair’s growth cycle.
Many people think testosterone causes baldness or hair loss, but it’s more of a chicken-or-egg situation: DHT messes with the hair follicles, causing thinning or balding, but it is testosterone’s sidekick, and you won’t see one without the other.
While women with PCOS, a syndrome caused by higher levels of testosterone and DHEA, often experience excess hair growth on the face and body, the high testosterone levels can also result in female pattern hair loss in the one place you want hair. The increase in DHT due to the increase in testosterone is also responsible for this PCOS side effect.
Estrogen & progesterone during menopause
During menopause, when estrogen and progesterone begin to decline, it’s not uncommon for women to notice thinning or lackluster hair. When estrogen and progesterone fall and androgen levels rise, hair may begin to look thinner or more brittle thanks again to shrinking hair follicles.
Illness & Hair Loss
If you’ve been experiencing hair loss over the past few years, there may be one other explanation that is unique to our times: Covid. One study found that just over 66% of people who had contracted Covid also experienced thinning hair. The good news is this type of rapid shedding is not permanent. It’s caused by stress on your body and not by Covid itself. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), losing hair is common after experiencing illness, fever, giving birth, losing 20 or more pounds, periods of intense stress, or even going off birth control.
Similarly, certain mental health conditions like anxiety or depression may also put undue stress on the body, resulting in hair loss; it’s not that depression or other health issues cause hair loss (though some studies have shown a possible connection between certain SSRI antidepressants, like Prozac, and hair loss), but instead that mental health issues cause stress, which affects hair growth.
Finally, What Not to Do
Who among us hasn’t been tempted by a cute looking hair loss gummy or the siren song of a miracle vitamin that purports thicker hair? Typically, the main ingredient in any kind of hair supplement is biotin, but this vitamin (biotin in vitamin B7) will only have an effect on your hair if you’re actually deficient in that particular nutrient.
“While that's a popular go-to for many, the likelihood of someone being deficient in biotin is pretty low,” Yadav says.
In a very cruel catch-22, worrying about thinning hair can cause even more stress, worsening the situation. If you’re noticing hair in the drain or on your pillow, do what you can to lower your stress, avoid the ballerina buns, and remember that hair grows on a cycle. While it might have been temporarily derailed from its normal schedule, it will get back on track once the root cause is resolved.