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Is the vicious cycle of burnout causing women to lose their hair?

TextLauren Clark

The term is now officially recognised as a medical condition and unsurprisingly it’s already having an effect – particularly on women

It wasn’t so long ago that a full head of hair was the least of my worries. In childhood photos, my brunette ringlets rivalled Sarah Jessica Parker circa early Sex And The City, and my defining teenage memory is of frying my hair with straighteners so it resembled the sleek locks of that other 00s style icon, Sienna Miller.

Then I turned 24, and my once-thick mane began inexplicably thinning. First, strands started swirling down the plughole in increasingly bulky spaghetti-like clumps, and the claws of my Tangle Teezer became more frequently jammed. Then the widening parting and retreat of my hairline evolved into a fixation. Increasing numbers of young women, like me, are reporting hair loss – known medically as alopecia. It is estimated that 40 per cent of British females will experience it in some form by the age of 40, and there are widespread reports of teenage sufferers. 

There are two types of hair loss – female pattern hair loss (called androgenic alopecia) and shedding (telogen alopecia). The former is most common and genetic, caused by a follicular sensitivity to circulating ‘male’ hormones which mean clusters on the head start to decline – so there’s a slow, progressive reduction in the overall number of hairs. More straightforwardly, the latter is where hair falls out for a period (telogen effluvium) as a reaction to something (the type we see following car accidents, chemotherapy, or pregnancy and usually happens six to eight weeks after the ‘event’).

Stress has been found by several studies to exacerbate both types. “It triggers adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone cortisol which moves more hairs from the ‘growth’ phase to the ‘shedding’ phase,” explains trichologist Lorna Jones. “It is essential to ensure that you maintain a healthy balanced diet because if you are deficient in vital nutrients, then they will be diverted away from the hair’s blood vessels to major organs like the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. The brain is very efficient at working out which parts of the body are essential and non-essential – hair falls under the latter.” For some people, their locks can return as quickly as they left following a stressful event, while others who experience ongoing stressors may find regrowth remains stalled.

Stress isn’t just mental, but physical too. In fact, it’s the body‘s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response, and can be triggered by pretty much everything. Invisible ‘stress’ on the body can include a lack of sleep, poor diet, pollution (as a new study this week found), over-exercising, and a simple lack of downtime. And as well as single or short-term incidents which are traumatic for the body, as mentioned above, it can also include chronic stress – often referred to as burnout. 

It’s certainly not a coincidence that a rise in female hair loss is taking place at the same time as reports showing Gen-Z and millennial women are more burned out than ever. According to a Mental Health Foundation survey, we’re still twice as likely to experience anxiety as men, with 81 per cent of us reporting feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope. I’m convinced my generation is experiencing unique pressures which are having a direct impact on the state of our mane. The most obvious being work. Then there are the more well-publicised ways in which social media affects our mental health, by damaging self-esteem and subjecting us to trolling. However, the very act of clicking on such apps isn’t doing us any good either. Recently Professor Phil Reed at Swansea University discovered that stints on social media cause spikes of the stress hormone cortisol.

Our obsession with being healthy is also arguably stressing our bodies out. Over-exercising without enough fuel has been found by studies to shift follicles into the ‘shedding’ phase. Then there’s the trend for restricted diets - like veganism – which risks us not getting enough iron (found to affect 20 per cent of women), as well as vitamin B12, folic acid, zinc, and vitamin D – generally present in animal products. And beware of the even more fashionable intermittent fasting (AKA the 16:8 diet) which is encouraging many women to skip breakfast – the most important of the day for hair, since energy levels to follicles are at their lowest. 

“It’s certainly not a coincidence that a rise in female hair loss is taking place at the same time as reports showing Gen-Z and millennial women are more burned out than ever. My generation is experiencing unique pressures which are having a direct impact on the state of our mane”

After plenty of hair-twirling bouts of research and a trip to the GP, I realised that my thinning hair was the likely result of stressing my body out in multiple ways. A heady mix of tight work deadlines and family illness, as well as too much booze, not enough sleep, a plant-based diet, and overdoing the high-intensity exercise. “Your hair grows like a plant from the root that sits underneath your scalp, and in order to look after it, you have to focus internally,” trichologist Lorna Jones continues. “So, if you’re putting your body under stress by spending late nights out drinking, getting to bed late, crash dieting and living a generally busy lifestyle, your body is going to really struggle to keep you well – and your hair will suffer first.”

There are many young women, like me, who learned the hard way. “I’d always had a thick, messy head of hair, but I began to notice my hair becoming increasingly fine on the top of my head from the age of 15. It was unsettling,” says Gaby, 27, from Edinburgh. “This was the start of a stressful period of school exams, leaving home and going to university. As I grew into adulthood, my hair became a physical sign that I was going through an acutely anxious period, with more than usual falling out in the shower during these times.” She decided to tackle the root cause, and sought help from her GP for her mental health – her locks slowly recovered as a result.

Similarly, Charlotte, also 27, from Suffolk, experienced a distressing bout of hair loss following a stressful six months. “My hair had always been very voluminous,” she explains. “Then I found myself in a chain of eight buyers when my boyfriend and I were trying to move house. Money was also tight, and my dad was unwell with an autoimmune condition. At the same time, I was struggling to sleep and my skin flared up with acne – making me even more anxious about my appearance.” It started falling out as she styled it. She went to the doctors, her blood tests came back normal, and spent a lot of time researching online. But much of the information was intended for post-menopausal women or wasn’t from an independent source, leaving her feeling lost. 

Charlotte’s locks are slowly returning. “My ponytail is definitely thinner than it was,” she says, unsure if it was the assortment of regrowth serums she tried. “But I’ve got a lot of baby hairs sprouting around my temples.” The focus now is on keeping the hair she has well-nourished with good-quality shampoos and treatments (like those from Olaplex) and has ditched dry shampoo, which many believe dries up essential scalp oils. 

“I removed as much stress from my life as possible. I stopped working 12-plus-hour days, deleted Instagram from my phone, made lunch breaks and eight hours of sleep non-negotiable, and swapped intense gym sessions for long walks and yoga. I also reintroduced meat and dairy for a balanced diet, and I still take extra nutritional supplements”

I likewise threw out my Batiste on the same advice, and keep the hair I have in the best condition possible with sulfate-free shampoo (Pureology is a favourite), conditioner (where a trichologist told me you should invest since the product is on your hair for longer) and limiting hot stylers. I went a step further and removed as much stress from my life as possible. I stopped working 12-plus-hour days, deleted Instagram from my phone, made lunch breaks and eight hours of sleep non-negotiable, and swapped intense gym sessions for long walks and yoga. I also reintroduced meat and dairy for a balanced diet, and I still take extra nutritional supplements.

However, for those of us whose hair is in the process of growing back – or remains a thinner version of its former self – society can continue to make you feel like a pariah. As Javaria Akbar points out, western culture equates a silky mane as a pinnacle of youthful health and beauty – noting that the famous dialogue in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, “Hair is everything!” couldn’t ring truer. While our body may not view hair as essential – every advert, social media feed, and red carpet sure does.

So when your follicles start failing you, it’s quick for anxiety, poor self-esteem and low confidence to sprout in their place. “Women from a young age are called pretty not clever,” explains Deborah Maloney, a psychotherapist who has worked with hair loss sufferers including adolescents. “So when our external appearance changes – particularly with hair, which is valued as part of our femininity and sexuality – it disturbs our sense of self.” 

While conversations may be happening in private, our public social media feeds rarely beam the balding head of a woman. This lack of visibility makes it harder for sufferers to accept changes in their bodies. But it speaks volumes that Jada Pinkett Smith, Selma Blair, and Viola Davis are just some celebrities to share their hair loss experiences. After writing about this topic before, I was both relieved and alarmed at the influx of direct messages I was receiving on social media from those around my age – in our ‘prime’ by societal standards - going through the same distressing experience. Women were telling me how ‘alone’ they felt and how ‘brave’ I was for sharing my story. 

However, I think they – and I – felt the same wave of relief when we finally said out loud, “I’ve been losing my hair.” Because it’s not some dirty secret, but a very normal process our bodies go through, which in all likelihood indicates that we’ve overcome a pretty rubbish period and need some TLC. Just like body shapes and clear skin, the sooner we celebrate what makes us each individually different and beautiful, the better. 

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