Perhaps one of the most important outwardly visible signs of health is our hair. With fast growing cells, hair can very quickly reflects stress or crisis in the body. Everything from nutritional deficiencies, to a surgery, to starting a new medication can all become visible quite quickly in your hair.
And one of the most frightening things that can happen is hair loss. There is nothing worse than standing in a shower, washing your hair, and seeing multiple strands of hair circling around – and eventually clogging – the drain.
It’s helpful to understand and that there are actually three common types of hair loss.
· General Hair Loss. This is overall shedding. You’ll see more hair on the pillow, more in the drain, and more in your hairbrush. You won’t, however, have specific bald patches. This type of loss is more often associated with thyroid imbalance, and imbalances in estrogen and progesterone.
· Circular/Patchy Loss. Small circular patches of thinning hair, or even total loss in patches. This is more often seen in fungal infection or in the disease autoimmune alopecia.
· Male Pattern Hair Loss. While this affects men primarily by this hair loss that is concentrated mainly in the temples and top of the head, women are vulnerable too. Typically, this sort of hair loss is related to conversion of the hormone testosterone to its less dihydrotestosterone, or DHT. Hair follicles shrink, and eventually disappear.
If you are experiencing hair loss, your first step should be a thorough evaluation of your thyroid function. Hair loss is a very common – but often overlooked – sign of an underlying thyroid dysfunction, and an underactive thyroid – hypothyroidism – specifically.
Are you experiencing any of these common hair-related symptoms of an underactive thyroid?
· My hair is rough and coarse
· My hair is dry, strawlike
· My hair is breaking or brittle
· My hair is falling out more than usual
· My eyebrows or eyelashes are falling out
· I’m losing my underarm or pubic hair
· I’m noticing that hair is falling out with the root still attached
· My hair won’t hold a perm
· Won’t hold a curl
· The texture of my hair has changed
· My hair tangles easily
· The outer edge of my eyebrows are thinning, or falling out (considered a distinct and obvious
Because hair loss is so often caused by a hidden thyroid problem, a thorough thyroid evaluation is essential. As part of such an evaluation, your practitioner should take your personal and family history, conduct a thorough clinical examination, and order blood tests. For more information, see Could Your Thyroid be Underactive?
The thyroid can cause hair loss in women in a number of different ways. Normally, hair grows about a half inch a month. One in ten hairs is in a resting period at any given time, and after about three months of rest, a new hair pushes the old one out. Because the thyroid provides energy to the cells, low thyroid can cause a slowdown in hair cycles, and sometimes follicles even get “stuck” in the resting phase.
Imbalances in thyroid hormones can also destabilize progesterone and estrogen, all which have an impact on hair cycles.
Thyroid problems are also most likely due to the underlying autoimmune disease known as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. And autoimmune patients are more susceptible to alopecia.
The conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone seems to be sped up in some hypothyroid patients.
For some women, getting an underlying thyroid problem diagnosed and properly treated will resolve hair loss. It can take months, however, because hair takes months to move back into a regrowth cycle. Some women continue to lose hair, after treatment. One little know reason is that the popular conventional treatment for hypothyroidism – the drug levothyroxine, known most often by the brand name Synthroid –actually causes hair loss as a drug side effect in some patients. (Note: Many doctors don’t know this, even though it is a stated side effect in the literature, so don’t be surprised if your doctor is not aware of this.) Some patients also appear to need the additional hormone T3 – not found in levothyroxine – to prevent further hair loss. For these patients, switching to another drug like the natural desiccated thyroid drug Armour Thyroid, or the combination drug liotrix (Thyrolar), may resolve hair problems.
I have very long, usually thick hair myself, but early on after my hypothyroidism diagnosis, my hair became so thin that my entire head of hair could be pulled into a ponytail the thickness of a pencil! It truly was a discouraging symptom. But with proper thyroid treatment – in my case, I lose hair on levothyroxine/Synthroid, and need a drug that includes T3 in order to stem hair loss – my hair loss became more manageable.
There are also natural and lifestyle approaches that help support healthier hair, and slow hair loss in women with hormonal imbalances.
•Protein — Sufficient protein in the diet is particularly important for the health of hair.
•Evening Primrose Oil (EPO)
•Iron (If you are on thyroid hormone replacement already, make sure you allow at least 4 hours between taking thyroid medication and iron, to avoid interfering with your thyroid treatment.)
•Other supplements such as arginine, cysteine, green tea, saw palmetto, vitamin B6, and zinc.
Don’t forget to talk to your hairdresser too. Many hairdressers are experts at helping women cope with hair loss. So while you’re getting your health in order, and hopefully addressing your hair loss problem from the inside out, your hairdresser may be able to suggest styling products or techniques that will help camouflage hair loss. Small undetectable hairpieces that add lift and body are also a great tool in helping make thinning hair look great. And even hair extensions can help you get through an especially difficult period of thinning hair.
If your hair loss still doesn’t respond to thyroid treatment, a consultation with a trichologist – a specialist in hair loss – may be helpful. Medical treatments for hair loss may include laser therapy, scalp injections, drugs like Rogaine (minoxidil) and Propecia, and even hair transplants if needed.
Mary Shomon is an internationally-known thyroid patient advocate, and is author of a number of best-selling health books, including Living Well With Hypothyroidism and The Thyroid Diet. Since 1997, she has run the Internet’s most popular thyroid patient sites: About.com Thyroid Site and Thyroid-Info.com