888-237-3625 | 520-748-0388

Signs of Stress: How it Shows on Hair, Skin and Nails

Posted Oct 12, 2018

The building blocks to create healthy hair, skin, and nails come from the nutrients the body digests and absorbs. Chronic or heavy stress puts the body in fight or flight mode, which turns the focus on survival but hampers other functions in the body, such as digestion and nutrient absorption. The body burns through nutrients faster than normal under stress, leaving a deficit. Over time, the decrease in vital nutrients can have a damaging and noticeable effect on hair, skin, and nails.

Effects of Stress on Hair

Hair requires minerals like magnesium and manganese to be healthy and strong. Under stress, the demand for these minerals increases but nutrient absorption and assimilation decreases. This means that over time stress can make hair appear dull and become brittle. The more stress, the more scarce those vital nutrients become.

It seems like a bad cliche, but stress can also trigger hair loss. When the body is subjected to extreme stress, as much as 70 percent of hair can prematurely enter the telogen (resting) phase and begin to fall out, causing a noticeable thinning of hair. Life-changing or traumatic events, such as a car accident or surgery, can also trigger hair loss. In these times of high stress, hair may stop growing altogether to focus on healing. Hair usually starts growing back within six to nine months, but some hair shed during these times may take longer to regrow.

Can stress cause gray hair? Though it’s often believed that extreme stress can cause gray hair, it’s not until recently that we’ve found out why this happens. Scientists are now discovering that free radicals generated at a higher rate during stress (the same ones that damage the skin) may well be the culprits, harming cells in the hair shaft that produce the hair’s pigment.

Effects of Stress on Skin

Oil production can increase when the body’s cortisol (the stress hormone) level rises. This increase can lead to acne, oily skin, and other skin problems. It’s been shown that people who do not typically have acne have developed temporary stress-related acne due to increased oil production.

Excessive stress and cortisol have other direct effects on the skin. The skin normally has a fatty layer which protects and insulates, retains moisture and provides a smooth texture. Excessive cortisol damages this layer and results in thin, fragile skin prone to easy bruising, stretch marks and infection. Stress also induces cumulative skin damage over time because it accelerates production of free radicals.

When free radicals are generated faster than the cellular antioxidant mechanisms can neutralize them, they damage the cells and their DNA, interfere with the protein that keeps the skin firm and prevents sagging, hasten the formation of wrinkles, and speed up the aging process. Not only does the skin react to the adrenal stress hormones circulating throughout the body, but also to cortisol generated within specialized cells in the skin itself. Each of these cells, called a follicle, has its own equivalent of the  hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the ability to demand and synthesize cortisol within the skin tissue itself. With over 5 million of these cells in the body, that is a lot of mini cortisol factories impacting your skin! Moreover, when cortisol levels are out of balance (too high or too low), the balance of sex hormones, like testosterone and progesterone, can be disrupted, which adversely affects the skin.

Stress can also effect the body’s wound healing process. A 2001 study in the Archives of Dermatology found that stress affected the skin’s barrier function, which resulted in water loss that hindered the skin’s ability to repair itself after injury.

Effects of Stress on Nails

Fingernails and toenails are not immune to the effects of stress. Nails require protein, silica, magnesium, zinc, iron, biotin, and other vitamins and minerals to grow strong and healthy. Because stress makes it difficult for your body to absorb the nutrients it needs, nail pitting, shredding and ridging frequently flare under stress. Adrenal fatigue also reduces absorption of nutrients essential to tissue health, making the combination of high stress with adrenal fatigue particularly detrimental to nail health as well.

Biotin is a nutrient that is often useful in the treatment of brittle nails, yet cortisol has been shown to cause a loss of biotin from the body. Finally, many people tend to abuse their nails when stressed, resorting to nail biting or repetitive rubbing that can cause mechanical damage to the nail bed. Physical or emotional stress can cause white horizontal lines to show up across the nails.


Altemus, Margaret, et al. “Stress-Induced Changes in Skin Barrier Function in Healthy Women.” Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Volume 117, Issue 2, August 2001.

“Feeling Stressed? How Your Skin, Hair And Nails Can Show It.” Science Daily. November 12, 2007. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071109194053.htm

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, September 18). Hair follicle. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:09, October 9, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hair_follicle&oldid=860081798