Our bodies are quite adept at dealing with high-anxiety situations. Once the stress hormone cortisol kicks in, a chemical cascade of events follows, helping us to tackle whatever challenge is being thrown our way, from a tight deadline to a ferocious dog. But while this process can be helpful physiologically and mentally (we tend to be quicker on our feet because of it), it can also wreak havoc on our hair, skin, and nails. Breathe easy: Here are simple ways to overcome the aesthetic effects of stress.
Why it happens: Let’s face it—great hair is an asset but not essential to good health. Your body knows this intrinsically, so when you’re so stressed that you’re eating poorly or losing weight, it directs all its energy to making sure that your vital organs are functioning properly; it doesn’t waste precious resources on your hair. As a result, says Amy McMichael, the chair of the department of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, “follicles in the growing stage go immediately into the resting and shedding phase,” a condition known as telogen effluvium.
How to treat it: If, instead of shedding the normal 100 strands a day, you’re shedding more like 300—meaning handfuls fall into the sink when you’re brushing—see your doctor. If your hair loss is caused by a poor diet due to stress, your doctor may start by testing your levels of B12, zinc, iron, and the protein ferritin—nutrients that are crucial to hair growth—and suggest that you take supplements if you have any deficiencies. She may also discuss stress-management techniques if diet alone is not to blame. Once the stress is addressed (ohmmm), the condition should fully reverse in 6 to 10 months. In the meantime, you can make the effects less noticeable: Lather up with a thickening shampoo that coats the hair with amino acids, such as L’Oréal Paris EverStrong Thickening Shampoo ($7 at drugstores), and consider styling with a dry-shampoo spray, such as Bosley Bos-Renew Volumizing Dry Shampoo ($19, ulta.com). It will keep scalp oils from weighing down thin hair while still offering hold.
Why it happens: As we’ve witnessed time and again, anyone who holds the most stressful job in the country—president of the United States—goes gray fairly quickly. And until now researchers have never completely understood why. But this past summer researchers at New York University School of Medicine found that physical stress, such as burning your hand, causes melanocytes, the stem cells responsible for hair color and other regenerative processes, to migrate from the hair follicles to other parts of the body to promote healing. This leaves hair without pigment and therefore gray. The researchers theorize that emotional stress may also be associated with depletion of melanocytes, setting off graying.
How to treat it: There is currently no known way to reverse graying, but some of the latest home and salon hair colorants are formulated with an oil-based delivery method that can help mask silvery strands by increasing the dye penetration into the shafts and coating wiry grays so that they lie flat and smooth. (Try Garnier Olia Oil Powered Permanent color, $10 at drugstores; or Redken Chromatics Beyond Covers, prices vary, redken.com for salons.)