Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant
Most people are familiar with common symptoms of stress, including anxiety, worry, irritability, depression, and unhappiness. But stress has also been linked to several medical conditions. Here are surprising conditions stress can cause.
1) Hair Loss
During the pandemic, searches for hair loss went up 8%, with more than 800,000 searches per month. Dermatologists saw a significant increase in patients who were experiencing this problem.
To understand stress-related hair loss, it’s helpful to understand that there are three stages of hair growth and shedding: anagen, catagen, and telogen.
Anagen is the active phase of hair growth. In this phase, cells in the hair’s root are actively dividing, which generates new hair. As new hair grows, it pushes the old hair (called club hair) out of the follicle and takes its place. Hair grows at an average of six inches per year. People with a longer anagen phase can grow hair faster, whereas people with a slower anagen phase aren’t able to grow their hair as long.
In the catagen phase, the hair stops growing and the root shrinks. In this phase, which lasts 2-3 weeks, an active hair becomes a club hair.
In the telogen phase, club hair begins to shed at an average of 25-100 strands per day. If the body is under stress, hair can suddenly be forced from the anagen phase to the telogen phase, which causes accelerated hair loss. This condition is called telogen effluvium (TE), and people with this condition can shed 300 or more hairs per day.
Physical stressors that cause TE include childbirth, jetlag, surgery, and fevers. Psychological stressors including trauma, anxiety, and grief can also cause TE.
Cardiomyopathy is a disease in which the heart muscle becomes enlarged, rigid, or thick and loses its ability to pump effectively. A form of cardiomyopathy commonly called “broken heart syndrome” occurs when a person experiences sudden or extreme stress. Domestic violence, natural disasters, financial crises, and shocking news can all cause this form of cardiomyopathy.
Another name for broken heart syndrome is Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Takotsubo is the Japanese name for the balloon-shaped clay pot used to catch octopi. It’s used to describe broken heart syndrome because the heart becomes balloon-shaped when the left ventricle is weakened by this form of cardiomyopathy.
3) Vision Loss
In a condition called Central SerousChorioretinopathy (CSC), fluid accumulates under the retina. Patients with CSC experience blurry or distorted vision. In some cases, they can experience temporary vision loss.
Stress is one of the most common causes of CSC. When someone is experiencing stress, they have higher levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol causes inflammation as well as fluid leakage. When a person has high levels of cortisol in their system, fluid can seep into the retina and cause CSC.
This condition is more common in men than women, and usually affects patients between 30-50 years old. Treatment often includes lifestyle changes, meditation, improved sleep, and stress reduction.
Stress is a common trigger of migraines and tension-type headaches. Migraines typically cause throbbing pain, nausea or vomiting, and light sensitivity. Tension-type headaches usually cause a dull headache as well as a sense of pressure or tightness along with the scalp and neck muscles.
Stress can cause muscle tension, which leads to headaches if the tension is in the scalp or neck. Stress hormones also affect blood vessels, which can lead to migraines if the blood vessels that supply the head and brain are affected.
5) Irregular Periods
Stress can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle, too. This is because the stress hormone cortisol has a direct effect on estrogen and progesterone, the two hormones that control the menstrual cycle. A disruption in estrogen and progesterone can cause a woman’s period to become irregular, or it can cause her to miss a period altogether.
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