Stress is a known killer due to its connection to many medical problems. New research suggests that your doctor may be able to tell how much you have been exposed to stress by simply checking the amount of cortisol in your hair.
This study led by scientists from the University of Iceland and the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico was published in PLOS Global Public Health.
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It has been known for some time that one of the areas of the body that stress impacts is the hair. It causes hormones that alter hair pigmentation (leading to graying) or hair loss to be released.
With this new research, medical experts could now measure a person’s degree of stress by examining cortisol levels in their hair.
Exploring cortisol in hair
The research team set out to uncover whether cortisol ends up in the hair while the latter is growing. And, if that’s the case, it wanted to check if its amount has a link to stress levels.
The scientists examined hair sample data of more than 1,200 women in the Mexican Teachers and Icelandic Stress and Gene Analysis groups. Hair samples of 881 women living in Mexico and 398 women in Iceland were included in the data.
These samples were obtained by pulling out of the women’s heads, rather than by cutting, to enable hair root testing.
The researchers estimated that hair grows about 1 cm a month, on average. So they cut each hair to 3 cm to signify growth in the previous three months before analysis.
The women covered were also asked to complete a short survey on their perception of their stress levels over the previous three months.
Marker of stress
Results of the investigation were divided into five groups after testing the hair samples and analyzing questionnaires completed by the participants. Each group, which was assigned a numerical score to enable comparison, represented a stress level.
Researchers observed a linear relationship between the women’s perception of stress and the levels of cortisol in their hair. Volunteers that had reported higher stress levels also had more cortisol in their hair.
Also referred to as hydrocortisone, cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal gland. People typically produce lots of it when they are stressed – hence, you may hear it called the stress hormone sometimes.
Findings in this research, therefore, suggest that the amount of cortisol in your hair can function as a biomarker of the degree of stress you were exposed to in the past. The researchers noted, however, that a test of this kind also needs to consider other factors that could cause cortisol to surge, including medications and benign tumors.
There is a need for further research to probe the observed relationship in the wider population. This is partly because the current study focused on only one gender.