Break The Fall
Each day, we shed about 100 hairs from our head. Find out why women lose hair and what we can do about it
Factors that contribute to hair loss
Your scalp has around 100,000 hair follicles and every three years, each of those follicles goes through a cycle of hair growth, with the hair resting and falling out, followed by growth of new hair. However, sometimes that pattern is disturbed and either the hair does not grow or it becomes finer, so women get thinning hair, hair loss and patches of baldness.
Just over half of women suffer some hair loss and thinning as they age. In most cases it is not noticeable, but for some of us, the loss can be more obvious and distressing.
“About 50 per cent of women in their 40s suffer some thinning. And now women are experiencing this problem in their 20s and 30s.” says trichologist David Salinger.
From sugar overload to diabetes and crash dieting, we look at some of the reasons behind female hair loss and thinning, and find out what can help.
THE SUGAR EFFECT
“The amount of sugar in our diets has an effect. Hidden sugars are part of the problem,” says David. Sugar causes inflammation and leads to white blood cells attacking the cells that produce hair. Finnish studies found that women with high sugar diets and insulin resistance had a higher risk of hair loss.
“When a woman has a normal level of insulin, that facilitates the conversion of testosterone back to oestrogen,” explains trichologist Anthony Pearce.
Female hormones promote hair growth while male hormones, like testosterone, can aggravate hair loss and thinning.
Reduce sugar intake by reading food labels carefully, and if sugar is one of the first three ingredients listed, choose an alternative item with 15g of sugar or less per 100g.
“Some birth control pills can trigger hair thinning because they have a male hormone influence,” explains David. Pills like Diane-35, Yaz and Yasmin have a weaker male hormone effect than others. If you are taking the Pill and feel it is affecting your hair, speak to your GP about alternative birth control.
“If you are 10kg to 30kg overweight, that will bring metabolic disturbance and hair loss,” says Anthony. Losing weight by cutting out key food groups is a factor in thinning hair or hair loss as well. Hair is made of protein and not getting enough protein can affect hair growth. Iron and zinc deficiency has also been linked to hair loss.
“With crash dieting, you change your diet and three months later you get temporary hair loss because your hair is always three months behind the rest of your body,” says Salinger.
Eating a balanced diet ensures that you get enough protein and minerals for healthy hair growth. An iron supplement can help as well.
Our body releases a natural substance called nerve growth factor when we are stressed. This causes the nerves around the hair follicle to become agitated and inflamed, which leads to diffuse hair loss.
“Stress also increases cortisone, a hormone released by the adrenal gland. It has a similar effect to male hormones, so leads to thinning,” says David. “With extreme stress, women can also get alopecia areata – circular patches of baldness that crop up quite quickly, within a week or two.”
Last year, scientists at Columbia University Medical Centre in the US found 75 per cent of patients with moderate to severe alopecia areata saw hair regrowth improve after they were treated with a drug called ruxolitinib. The drug identifies the immune cells that cause the inflammation that damages the hair follicles.
PERIMENOPAUSE AND MENOPAUSE
Scarring alopecia is a common problem after menopause, with scarring mostly occurring along the front hairline and front sides of the scalp. A loss of female hormones is behind the problem and leads to white blood cells attacking and scarring hair follicles. Hormone replacement therapy can help.
“Eyebrows can be affected too. You cannot see the scars on the scalp, but you see a little redness around the follicle or a small scale around the follicle,” says David.
A specialist may also prescribe an amino acid called tyrosine or recommend steroids to treat scarring alopecia.
There is not a lot you can do about your genetics, but knowing if you are more prone to thinning hair or hair loss can encourage you to act when you notice your hair is changing.
“Genetics are a major factor and we think for a woman to have genetic thinning, she will inherit the genes from both parents,” says David. “However, even if both parents have great hair, their child can get genetic thinning.”
Advances are being made in treating hair loss and thinning. One option is platelet-rich plasma, where platelets from the blood are concentrated and then those platelets are injected into the scalp.
“The platelets are rich in growth factors for the hair, so injecting them helps hair growth,” says David. “It is invasive, and several places in the scalp are injected initially but it can be of benefit. Hair transplantation is also effective for women who are really thinning on top, but if your hair is only slightly thinning, you should try other treatments first.”