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The Palin debate: tress stress?

Experts at odds about cause of thinning hair

Opinions are divided over whether stress alone can thin your hair. Opinions are divided over whether stress alone can thin your hair. (John Wagner/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via Ap)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2009

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It was the hair that launched a thousand quips - and now it’s thinning. At least that was the word from Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin is so stressed that she appears “underweight’’ to friends, and the up-do known around the world has thinned “to the point where she needed emergency help from her hairdresser,’’ the New York Times reported.

But can stress thin hair? As with everything else about the Alaska governor, opinions are divided.

Dr. Gerald Weissmann, professor emeritus at New York University School of Medicine, insists the answer is no. “Stress short of chemotherapy or horrible infections does not cause hair thinning,’’ said Weissmann, who edits the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal. “There is no evidence of that in all the literature.’’

People believe stress thins hair, Weissmann said, because “aging causes hair thinning, and by and large, it’s difficult to age without encountering some form of stress.’’

He points to the preponderance of male politicians with fantastic hair as proof that political pressure doesn’t cause hair loss. “Take a look at the people questioning [Supreme Court nominee Sonia] Sotomayor,’’ he said. “[Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick] Leahy doesn’t have much, but everyone else has hair.’’

“Stress and hair loss are not like a one-two punch,’’ added Dr. Amy McMichael, director of the hair disorders clinic at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Physiologic stress - such as having a baby, losing a lot of weight, starting or stopping medication - can cause hair loss, but basic psychological stress does not, explained McMichael, who also serves as secretary/treasurer of the North American Hair Research Society. “It’s not like, I had a bad day today, and look, my hair is falling out,’’ she said.

But Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, a psychiatrist with the Mayo Clinic, argues that emotional stress can lead to bad hair days - or months.

The most common type of stress-induced hair loss is telogen effluvium, he writes on the clinic’s website. “In this condition, emotional or physical stress . . . pushes large numbers of growing hairs into a resting phase. Within a few months, the affected hairs may fall out suddenly when simply combing or washing your hair. The hair typically grows back when the emotional or physical stress is resolved, although this can take months.’’

Humans aren’t the only animals who could be susceptible to stress-related hair loss. Researchers who subjected laboratory mice to rodent-repellant sounds concluded: “psychoemotional stress indeed alters actual hair follicle cycling’’ and “prematurely terminates the normal duration of active hair growth,’’ according to a report in the March 2003 American Journal of Pathology.

With scientists differing in their opinions on stress-related hair loss, perhaps only a hairdresser knows for sure.

“I’ve noticed it with a lot of my clients,’’ said Cliff Bouvier of Crew International in Brookline. “I feel bad for Sarah Palin and bad for her hair, even though I don’t really care for her.’’