Hair Reveals Stress Levels and Heart Attack Risks

Published: October 22nd 2010
in News » Local

Hair can reveal lifestyle information.
Pic: Fotolia

Long or short, styled or shaggy, you can tell a lot about people by the way they wear their hair. It provides clues to how they see themselves, and how they hope to be perceived. And according to several important studies by Israeli-Canadian researcher Dr. Gideon Koren, your hair can also reveal lifestyle information, such as whether you have been under stress and are at greater risk of a heart attack.


If you know what to look for, says the professor of pediatric medicine and toxicology at the University of Western Ontario, hair can tell you what a person has been up to.


Indeed, Koren's research has helped to divulge secrets hidden in hair; specifically, the level of stress a person has had to contend with. Following a study by a colleague of his about a decade ago that showed that cortisol (also known as hydrocortisone, a steroid hormone or glucocorticoid), produced by the adrenal gland, is present in human hair, Koren decided to study the relationship between cortisol levels and levels of stress.


"As cortisol is a known biomarker for stress, and because hair grows about a centimeter [0.4 inch] a month, I thought this was a great opportunity to measure chronic stress over time," he tells ISRAEL21c, adding that his research has led to a new biological marker that "can be used to help prevent heart attacks."


Building your "stress record" through your hair


While hair itself consists of dead cells, a hair's follicle - which contains its roots - is alive, and substances in the bloodstream, like cortisol, can leech into the follicles from blood vessels in the scalp. As hair grows, the cortisol moves up the strand. Taking into consideration the rate of hair growth per month Koren says, you can determine how much stress an individual has been under in recent months.


In fact, it turns out that the cortisol count in hair is the most reliable measure of the hormone to be found by scientists to date. Previously they had to rely on measures of cortisol in blood or urine, which record only a few hours' or days' worth of the hormone. Thus, depending on hair length, a doctor could determine how much stress a person has been under for the preceding six months or even more, and whether or not those stress levels have increased recently.


In a study in 2008 and 2009, Koren tested the theory at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, where he took hair samples from 120 men with a history of either heart attacks or chest pain and infections. Men were the only candidates in the first of what Koren hopes will be several studies, since they are more likely to have experienced heart-related stress.


Members of the research team analyzed the 1.2 inches of hair closest to the scalp, and using the cortisone level measurements they built a "stress record" covering the previous three months for the subjects in the study.


Cocaine used by mothers found in infants' hair


The study confirmed Koren's theories. Subjects who had experienced a heart attack showed significantly higher levels of cortisol in their hair. All the men in the study showed higher than average cortisol levels; about one third of the men with the lowest levels had experienced heart attacks, while heart attacks were experienced by more than two thirds of those with the highest levels of cortisol in their hair.


Koren, who was born in Tel Aviv, says he has conducted numerous studies at Meir Hospital with collaborator Prof. Michael Lishner. In a new study at the hospital that also involves cortisone measurement levels, Koren is examining the effects of stress on in-vitro fertilization candidates.


Related articles: (Hair, Gideon Koren, stress, heart attack, University of Western Ontario)
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