Hair Loss From Stress: A Secret Side Effect of Your Twenties

Megan was just 23, only a year out of college, when she rose one morning to find her pillow covered in hair. The sight became a daily rude awakening. Handfuls would come out in the shower. She visited a series of doctors—one prescribed Rogaine!—until she finally accepted the simple truth that her hair was falling out from stress.“It was towards the end of my first year teaching. I thought that I was overwhelmed but in no way stressed enough to lose my hair,” she says. “My full head of shiny, beautiful, wavy, brown hair was lackluster, brittle, dry and thin.”

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Although hair loss is typically thought of as a man’s problem, it’s actually just as common (if not more) in women—and many women start to notice changes in their 20s. “We associate hair loss or thinning with a loss of femininity, so it can be very traumatic,” says Mary Gail Mercurio, M.D., associate professor of dermatology and obstetrics & gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. And younger women who notice a change may be particularly distressed. Fear not. A waning mane doesn’t mean you’ll look like Mrs. Clean by your 30th birthday. There are a number of causes and a range of solutions that can help.

First, define your symptoms: Is your hair shedding (more hair is falling out when you brush it or in the shower) or thinning (you notice more of your scalp showing)?Some of the most common causes of shedding—technically called telogen effluvium—include a shock to your body (a serious illness, pregnancy or going on a crash diet), a stressful situation (you lost your job or experienced the death of a loved one), starting a new medication (anti-depressants and birth control can affect your hair) or a change in eating patterns (going vegetarian can result in not consuming enough protein).

Pressure, major life changes and poor eating are hallmarks of the college and post-college lifestyle, so it’s no wonder that 20-somethings are often afflicted with the (follicular) fallout.

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Because of your hair growth cycle, it usually takes 3-6 months after the event for you to notice the shedding, says Maria Hordinsky, M.D., chair of the department of dermatology at the University of Minnesota and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. So if you were laid off in January or lost a lot of weight that month, your hair may not start falling out until April or May. “As soon as you notice hair changes, look at a calendar and think back to what happened within the past six months,” says Hordinsky.The good news is that shedding is completely reversible in most cases, says Mercurio.

QUIZ: How Healthy Is Your Hair?

Use these techniques to combat shedding:

  • Wait it out. It can take up to a year for your hair to normalize, says Mercurio. Bottom line: Once you identify and change the stressor, try not to freak out. Give it some time and let your hair grow back in naturally. Now 25, Megan is seeing remarkable improvements in her hair. “I changed my daily habits to cut down on stress for my hair. The doctor was right: I needed to give it time, but it was clear I needed to make some serious personal changes as well,” she says.
  • Shampoo as normal. A knee-jerk reaction to seeing more hair in the shower drain is to wash it less often, “but there’s no connection between shedding and hair care practices,” says Mercurio. In fact, maintaining a healthy scalp (washing often) is one of the best ways to promote hair growth going forward.
  • Don’t be afraid to color. What you put on your hair isn’t the reason it’s falling out. The cause is internal. So, continue your beauty routine and you’ll feel better all around, says Mirmirani.
  • Re-assess your pills. High levels of certain vitamins and supplements (vitamin E, selenium and vitamin A) are associated with hair loss, says Hordinsky.

If your scalp is more visible than it used to be, it means your hair is thinning and the problem is likely female pattern hair loss (or alopecia). Unfortunately, this situation is genetic and there’s not much you can do to reverse it. But you can slow down the changes. Your best bet is minoxidil, an over-the-counter medication that can help slow hair loss and promote regrowth, says Paradi Mirmirani, M.D., a dermatologist at the Permanente Medical Group in Vallejo, California. See a derm to discuss treatment (find one near you with a specialty in hair disorders).  The sooner you start medication, the better your results will be.You can also try some easy cosmetic changes to hide thinning, suggests Mirmirani. Part your hair on the side instead of down the center, wear it back in a ponytail without a part and color your hair so it more closely matches your scalp color. This could be your excuse to finally go blonde!

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