We might not like it, but around two-thirds of women face hair loss at some point in their lives, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many experience a temporary thinning of their crowning glory after pregnancy, but a significant number have changes in the texture and thickness of their hair in their late forties and early fifties. In a long list of causes, the main one is the temporary changes brought on by the menopause.
But the spectre of female-pattern baldness is a natural worry. So let’s get that out of the way first.
This is the main cause of male-pattern baldness, affecting roughly 50 per cent of men, but can affect as almost as many women over 40. It can be inherited from either parent. However, the pattern of hair loss in women with androgenetic alopecia differs from the typical bald crown and receding hairline that afflicts men; instead, there is a general thinning over the top and sides of the head. A small mercy for which women can be thankful.
The culprits of this type of hair loss are DHT (dihydrotestosterone) and an enzyme known as 5-alpha reductase. An excess of this enzyme causes over-production of DHT, which in turn causes the follicles to make thinner and thinner hair.
Donna Ryan, founder of The Manchester Clinic of Trichology, says: “See your GP or a good, qualified trichologist and get the problem treated as soon as possible. They need to rule out other causes, such as nutritional deficiencies. But the quicker you address the issue, the better.
“You may be prescribed DHT blockers and minerals and vitamins. Once the hormonal imbalance is regulated, growth should return to normal.”
Increased hair shedding (telogen effluvium)
We have between 100,000 and 350,000 hair-producing follicles on our scalp. Hair grows between 1 and 1.5cm a month – slightly faster in women – for about three years (the anagen phase) before it rests for about three months. In this resting phase, called telogen, the hair remains in the follicle until it is pushed out by the growth of a new hair.
It is normal to lose between 50 and 100 hairs a day. But if you think you have persistent, increased shedding, look out for the folowing tell-tale signs, says Dr Hugh Rushton PhD, a leading expert in nutrition and hair loss in women.
- More hair coming out when you shampoo and comb.
- A reduced volume of hair when you put it in a ponytail or tie it back.
- Short hairs along your front hairline.
If any of those signs apply to you yet your parting width is still the same, and if the appearance of your hair isn’t significantly thinner, it is unlikely you’re suffering from genetic hair loss. Instead, this is due to telogen effluvium (increased hair shedding).
The primary cause of telogen effluvium is usually illness (viruses and fevers) as well as various medications. The effects of these don’t result in immediate hair loss and often don’t happen until eight to 12 weeks later. Once you’re restored to full health, you’ll notice an improvement.
Stress and hair loss
Interestingly, Donna Ryan says stress is a major cause of hair thinning. “We’re working longer and later,” she says, “and stress plays an important part in the condition of your hair.” The reason is that stress affects the gut, which in turn causes malabsorption. The resultant lack of minerals and vitamins causes hair loss and thinning.
Deficiencies in minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and chromium can have a marked effect. So, too, can a lack of protein and essential fatty acids in your diet.
There is a strong link between hair loss and the level of iron in your body. Rather than anaemia being the cause, it is more likely that your iron stores are low. This is because the body maintains a decent haemoglobin level by drawing iron from its stores, and when the stores are depleted it causes hair loss. So you need to get your serum ferritin level tested as well as your haemoglobin.
If you are vegetarian, or rarely eat red meat, your diet requires supplementing with iron, B and C vitamins, and an essential amino acid called Lysine. Evidence shows that once serum ferritin levels are raised to a certain trigger point, hair growth starts. But this can take several months, so the results won’t be immediate.
Auto-immune disorders, such as thyroid disease, also contribute to thinning hair, as can the fluctuating hormone levels caused by peri-menopause and menopause. So it is important not to dismiss thinning hair as a cosmetic problem and to ask your doctor for the relevant blood tests. These will establish whether you need to be taking appropriate medication. If your doctor’s surgery has a nutritionist, all the better.
On a cosmetic note: you’re not helping the situation if you wear your hair in a tight style (pulled back or in corn-rows, for example). Heat treatments, such as blowdrying and hair irons, aren’t great either. So while your hair is going through its rehabilitation process, be kind to it. There’s quite enough recession as it is…