Taxotere (active ingredient: docetaxel) is a chemotherapy agent used to treat a number of cancers, including locally-advanced and metastatic breast cancers. Recent studies have found evidence that, unlike the vast majority of chemo drugs, Taxotere’s active ingredient can result in permanent hair loss.
In recent days, we’ve heard from several women who are thinking about turning to hypnotherapy, in hopes that the psychological treatment will reverse their hair loss. While we were aware of several methods, like scalp cooling, that may be able to delay or reduce chemo-induced alopecia, we admit that using hypnotism to reverse the condition struck us as a novel idea.
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Do a quick search for “hypnotherapy hair loss” and you’ll find thousands of pages claiming that relaxation exercises, guided visualizations and enhanced states of consciousness can, indeed, help people regrow the hair they’ve lost.
Chris Grumbles, a hypnotist writing for The New Hypnotists, says, “hair loss is a real problem, and by tapping into the power of your subconscious mind we may be able to stimulate those follicles to start growing again.” Likewise, Dr. Steve G. Jones claims that the “subconscious mind holds the key” to combating hair loss.
Of course, if any of these claims were true, we would need good evidence to back them up. It’s a fairly simple proposition: if hypnotherapy can reduce, or reverse, hair loss, we should be able to demonstrate it under controlled conditions.
For evidence of their claims, Grumbles and Jones, along with Mind Power News, Natural Therapy Pages, Idea Fit and every other source we reviewed point to a single study published in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. From the outset, this isn’t a good sign, since no single scientific study can prove anything. What if your initial findings were simply the result of chance? Or human error?
In science, we need to reproduce experimental results to demonstrate a correlation or causation. So while hypnotherapy may, in fact, reverse hair loss, we don’t yet have sufficient evidence to know that, or believe it with a fair degree of certainty. Thus, any claim as to hypnotherapy’s benefits for hair growth should be considered poorly-founded, if not outright fraudulent, from the start. But let’s turn to the study, and see if it holds any water.
Surprisingly, there actually is an International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, which operates partially on behalf of the American Psychological Association. That sounds pretty legit. Turns out the journal is real, backed by a well-regarded medical group and researchers are looking into the potential benefits of hypnotherapy for lots of conditions.
The study at issue here is called “Hypnotic Approaches for Alopecia Areata.” It was conducted in 2006 by a group of Belgian researchers led by Ria Willemsen, a dermatologist and hypnotherapist in Meise, Belgium.
Willemsen took 28 patients with extensive alopecia areata, all of whom had seen poor hair growth results from conventional treatments. Each patient underwent hypnosis, during which they were provided with “symptom-oriented suggestions [and] suggestions to improve self-esteem.” Only 21 of the patients ultimately completed the study.
Afterwards, every patient showed significant decreases in anxiety and depression, as measured by a standardized test. Where hair regrowth was concerned, “twelve out of 21 patients, including 4 with total loss of scalp hair, presented a significant hair growth.”
In reality, those are actually promising results. Even in early clinical trials, Rogaine only led to significant hair regrowth in around 50% of men with male pattern baldness. In contrast, 57% of Willemsen’s patients saw benefits from hypnotherapy.
There are, however, a few problems with the study. For one thing, it didn’t include a control group, a similar group of patients who didn’t receive hypnotherapy. That means we can’t rule out alternative explanations for their hair growth. Another problem is that, for “ethical considerations,” most of the patients involved in the study were already using a conventional treatment for hair loss. While these conventional treatments had been previously unsuccessful, it’s possible that the standard drugs started working during the study period.
Even without these caveats, it’s unlikely that Willemsen’s findings can be extended to forms of hair loss that are caused by chemotherapy. The paper’s title should be our first clue that, while the results may demonstrate some relationship between hypnotherapy and hair loss, they don’t specifically address the nature of chemotherapy-induced hair loss. The study only looked at cases of alopecia areata. That’s a specific type of hair loss and, as we’ll learn in a minute, it’s probably not the same kind of hair loss that chemotherapy causes.
We’ve looked at one study that seems to support a beneficial link between hypnotherapy and alopecia areata. But beyond showing an empirical, real-world correlation between hypnotic techniques and hair growth, we also want a plausible biological explanation for why this is so.
Physically speaking, we know a lot about hair and why it does or does not grow. There’s no good reason to believe that pure mind power can spark renewed hair growth (just try it), so we have to ask two questions:
In an article written for Natural News, Dr. Steve G. Jones (who describes himself as a “citizen journalist”) gives us a potential clue, setting hypnotherapy, and its use for alopecia, on somewhat sounder footing than vague references to the “power of the subconscious mind”:
Alopecia, he explains, is caused by stress.
Stress, of course, isn’t just a mental state; it’s a raft of physical changes in the body. Faced by difficulties or danger, your endocrine system starts pumping out adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, hormones that raise your heart rate, tense your muscles, make you sweat and increase your alertness. These changes occur largely in the brain, but also have systemic effects.
Ria Willemsen adopts a similarly biological approach in her own hypnotherapeutic work. On her practice’s website, Willemsen suggests that her use of hypnosis comes down to hormonal changes in the body, rather than pure mind power: “Skin and psyche are strongly intertwined. Skin and brains communicate through a very dense network of various hormonal substances. This is called psycho-dermatology.” Likewise, her 2006 study notes that alopecia areata “seems triggered by stress.”
Obviously, there’s nothing “spooky” going on here. We’ve exited the world of an immaterial psyche for the realm of physical processes.
Most researchers agree that stress does play some part in alopecia. But not all types of hair loss are created the same. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D., a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, says that three types of hair loss can be associated with high levels of stress:
Hair follicles have a well-defined life cycle. For the cells on your scalp, this cycle generally involves around two years of growth, followed by two months of rest. During this resting phase, known as “telogen,” the cells don’t produce any new hair fibers.
Usually, between 80% and 90% of the scalp’s hair follicles are actively growing hair fibers, leaving 10% to 20% in the resting telogen stage. But when a significant proportion of hair follicles enter the telogen stage at the same time, an abnormally large amount of hair fibers are shed, and growth becomes patchy. It’s kind of like your scalp goes to sleep.
Hormone levels are definitely at play in telogen effluvium; that’s why many women experience the condition after giving birth. Dietary imbalances have also been proposed as a cause, most notably deficiencies in vitamins or minerals. Beyond dietary concerns, chronic stress is believed to be the primary cause of telogen effluvium.
Trichotillomania is a psychological disorder in which people struggle with an irresistible urge to pull out their own hair. While the condition, Hall-Flavin says, can be a reaction to high levels of stress, this obviously isn’t what we’re talking about when we consider chemotherapy-induced hair loss.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder, in which a patient’s immune system mistakes hair follicles for foreign invaders, like viruses or bacteria, leading to hair loss. The causes of alopecia areata are still obscure, but severe stress is a likely possibility.
Chemotherapy, however, actually results in a temporary decrease in immune system response, according to Cancer Research UK. Like hair follicles, white blood cells reproduce rapidly. Chemo agents kill them off, too, weakening the immune system. While there have been limited reports of chemo-induced alopecia areata, and suggestions that chemotherapy may be able to induce changes in autoimmune response, there’s still little evidence that chemo is associated with this form of hair loss.
We actually know exactly why people lose their hair during chemotherapy. Think about it. When a patient receives chemotherapy, a host of admittedly-toxic chemicals are introduced into their body. As their primary function, these chemicals interrupt and inhibit cell growth at specific stages in cellular division. Hair follicles are caught up in the destructive path of chemotherapy agents because they divide very frequently.
In this context, stress doesn’t seem to play a role. We’re not saying that undergoing chemotherapy or having cancer aren’t stressful situations. Of course they are. But if your hair is starting to fall out after receiving several infusions, it seems far more reasonable to blame the toxic chemicals than stress.
Chemotherapy, for that matter, doesn’t seem to affect hormone levels in the same way that stress does. Note that chronic stress results in increases of the hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. Chemotherapy agents, on the other hand, appear more likely to result in decreases of hormones. Some researchers have suggested that chemo drugs can diminish the levels of estrogen and progesterone, two sex hormones, in female breast cancer patients, but there’s no evidence that chemo drugs affect the levels of stress hormones.
We’re not suggesting that hypnosis is, for all intents and purposes, a fraud. But the idea that hypnotherapy could reverse chemo-induced hair loss just isn’t well-founded, and it doesn’t seem biologically plausible, either.