Hair A Means To Measure Stress, Heart Risks?

    Sep-02-2010

Here is an interesting revelation by a group of Israeli researchers exploring a possible link between chronic stress and risks of heart attacks by measuring a compound present in the hair. In fact, irrespective of whether you have cropped hair or long curls, these scientists say that, besides being a sign of your individual fashion, your hair may also function as a means to gauge nervous tension or trauma.

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The findings of the latest study in this regard stated that a hormone related to stress that is detained in the hair may perhaps function as a biological indicator for chronic tension, which, according to the researchers, is likely to help as a warning for heart attacks.

According to Dr. Gideon Koren, who occupies the Richard Ivey Chair in Molecular Toxicology at Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Ontario, severe stress is a comparatively uncomplicated issue. He further said that one can discuss the matter with people; there are different psychological techniques to enquire about their stress. In addition, the level of stress endured by an individual may also be measured by the secreted amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, present in the saliva, blood and urine. At the same time, Dr. Koren pointed out that compared to acute stress, our knowledge regarding chronic or unremitting stress is much less.

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The researchers pointed out that cortisol is very different from saliva, urine or blood, which are also used to measure the stress level. According to them, blood, saliva and urine serve as indicators of stress only at the time when they are measured. On the contrary, cortisol that is retained in the hair shaft continues to be stable in the locks for several months and often, for many years. In order to substantiate their view, the researchers even pointed to a recent research that brought to the light the existence of cortisol in the hair of the primeval Peruvian mummies belonging to the period between 550 AD and 1000 AD.

Therefore, keeping this aspect in view, Dr. Koren together with other scientists from Western and Meir Medical Center in Kfar-Saba in Israel made up their mind to investigate a probable connection between chronic stress and heart attacks by working out a system to measure cortisol detained by the hair.

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The scientists who conducted this small research, findings of which have been published in the online magazine Stress, examined 3 cm long hair samples from two groups of people. Each group comprised 56 male patients, but participants in one group had suffered heart attacks, while those in the other group had not. According to Dr. Koren, it was found that compared to people who did not have heart attacks, patients who have already endured the heart problem possesses considerably higher intensity of cortisol. This was true even after the risk factors, such as hypertension or high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking habits and family history of cardiovascular ailments, had been rectified. It was also found that although there was not much difference in the occurrence of hypertension, diabetes, smoking and family history of cardiovascular ailments among the participants in both the groups, other things, such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as 'bad' cholesterol, and body mass index (BMI) were considerably high among those who had already suffered heart attacks. In fact, the participants in the group of heart attack patients had elevated cortisol measurement in their hair, while those in the other group did not endure heart attack were found to have the highest individual recoded figure.

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At the same time, the scientists have pointed to restrictions with regard to using hair cortisol amounts. They emphasized that it is important that the hair must be of adequate length and, at the same time, it needs to be exposed to contamination by creams enclosing cortisol. They further said that as the hair follicles are present approximately three millimetres below the scalp, the cortisol measured in hair actually did not indicate whether it was exposed to the creams immediately or recently. Describing the findings published in the journal Stress as a 'conceptual paper', Dr. Koren said that they intend to undertake additional research in this domain and also scrutinize hair cortisol in women in their future studies. All these notwithstanding, Dr. Koren appeared to be confident that cortisol captured by hair was a definite indicator.

Nevertheless, Dr. Koren admitted that they certainly did not believe that this would in any way help to resolve the entire issue of heart attacks. Though he said that it would 'certainly not' solve this issue, Dr. Koren was of the view that in the instance of an individual having, for instance, other risk aspects, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, a specific amount of stress or tension may prove to be fatal for him or her. However, he hoped that further researches on this subject may help them to determine the precise numbers that can be utilized to caution people. According to him, this would be possible as one can alter the intensity of stress and people too can do diverse things.

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Since testing the cortisol levels in the hair could be an issue for bald people, does Dr. Koren have a solution to this? Replying to this question, Dr. Koren expressed doubt whether tests conducted on hair collected from other parts of the body would be effective enough as testing the hair from the scalp. According to him, much more work needs to be done to obtain desired results by testing the hair found elsewhere on the body. At the same time, the researchers assured that they surely plan to undertake further studies in this regard.

Meanwhile, a cardiologist with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute as well as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Chris Glover is of the view that though the research is fascinating, it does not provide any new information. According to Dr. Glover, the findings of the research undertaken by Dr. Koren and his colleagues are merely an extension of the findings of previous researches related to stress and heart attacks. Substantiating his observations, Dr. Glover pointed out that in major researches chronic stress as it has been particularly found in people enduring depression and nervous disorders and also acute lifestyle stresses - such as death of a child or spouse or divorce - are also linked with elevated risk of having heart attacks.

According to researchers, on an average the growth of hair on the scalp is approximately one centimetre every month. However, Dr. Glover emphasized that the hair growth on an individual varies and the growth is retarded or inhibited as he or she ages. Therefore, it cannot be said that the average hair growth on the scalp is around one centimetre each month. In addition to age, the growth of hair can also be affected by other hormonal factors. Dr. Glover pointed out that as the researchers from Western and Meir Medical Center in Kfar-Saba in Israel did not include a questionnaire vis-à-vis the behavioural stress scale, the possibility of other reasons, besides chronic stress, for the high levels of cortisol recorded in some of the people who participated in the study.

At the same time, Dr. Glover said that cortisol is a substance whose secretion differs during different periods of the day and an individual may experience an excessive secretion of cortisol when he or she is under stress. According to him, when an individual is constantly under stress, it is difficult to identify whether his or her level of cortisol secretion would be more elevated compared to what would have been in case he or she had just one, massive and severe stress or vice versa. Dr. Glover also remarked that he is not certain as to where the findings of the new research would blend in either recognizing or treating people enduring stress or tension.

The cardiologist from University of Ottawa Heart Institute also said that he was not actually sure about taking an individual who comes and says that he or she doesn't suffer from any stress and then take a hair sample of his or her hair to measure the level of cortisol that reveals that the person's cortisol is high and, therefore, something needs to be done to reduce his or her stress. According to Dr. Glover, the findings of the research do not reveal anything that may be termed as official. Therefore, he suggests that much more research needs to be done on this issue before one can determine the facts. In other words, he says that further study is required to come to a conclusion whether cortisol captured in the hair is any valid indication of stress or an impending heart attack.

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