Ask The Doctor: Thinning Hair
Answered by Susan Lark, MD, a women’s health expert and author of the alternative health newsletter Women’s Wellness Today.
I can certainly empathize with your distress over hair loss. First and foremost, I suggest getting a medical evaluation to rule out any underlying conditions, such as hypothyroidism; lupus; or alopecia areata, which causes hair to fall out in patches. Certain drugs—birth-control pills, beta blockers, and calcium-channel blockers—can also trigger hair loss. If none of these causes apply, you’re most likely experiencing female-pattern baldness. Unlike male-pattern baldness, which starts with a receding hairline, the female version causes hair to thin all over the scalp.
Both genetic predisposition and age can cause female-pattern baldness—and, unfortunately, you can’t control either factor. The average scalp holds about 100,000 hairs, and we lose roughly 100 strands every day as part of a typical hair-growth cycle. Normally, new hair grows in to replace lost hair, but aging follicles may shrink and begin yielding baby-fine hairs or even stop producing hair altogether. The result: thinner-looking locks or baldness.
Luckily, you can take measures to counteract some of the other hair-loss causes, namely hormone-level shifts, nutritional deficiencies, and stress. Simple changes can make your hair appear fuller and even spark those “retired” follicles back into action.
Hormonal imbalance—especially the estrogen decline brought on by menopause—can lead to hair loss in two ways. First, estrogen stimulates growth, so dipping levels before and during menopause cause hair to become thinner and drier. Second, menopause disturbs the delicate balance between estrogen and the tiny amount of testosterone that women’s bodies produce. Less estrogen gives testosterone—and its hair-thinning effects—a competitive edge.
To balance women’s hormones, some doctors recommend hormone replacement therapy, which can increase breast cancer risk. I prescribe plant-derived bioidentical hormones, which are biochemically and molecularly identical to hormones in the body. Soy and black cohosh supplements may also affect hormonal balance. In my practice, I suggest 50 to 100 mg of soy isoflavones each day and 80 to 160 mg of black cohosh twice a day.
Feed your hair
Hair follicles need a constant, nutrient-rich supply of blood to produce thick, healthy hair, regardless of age or hormone levels.
Silica makes hair strong and shiny, but the amount your body holds tends to decline with age. Good food sources include beets, soybeans, leafy green vegetables, and whole grains. Or you can take 60 mg of silica daily. Horsetail is also a great source of this mineral.
Copper helps form collagen in hair, making it thicker. Get copper from oysters, legumes, chocolate, bran cereals, blackstrap molasses, and nuts, such as almonds and cashews. Or supplement with 2 to 3 mg of the mineral each day.
Zinc protects your hair, thanks to its antioxidant properties. Good sources include wheat germ, oysters, pumpkinseeds, chicken breast, and eggs. I also recommend supplementing with 15 mg of zinc daily.
Stamp out stress
Stress overloads the hormonal feedback system that governs how your body distributes blood supply. When you feel stressed, levels of your two main stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—skyrocket. The fight-or-flight mechanism also kicks in, sending the bulk of your blood to the body parts that help you survive stress: the brain, heart, and muscles you use to run fast and fight hard. Obviously, your scalp isn’t on this short list, so chronic stress can turn the tap of life-giving blood to your scalp down to a mere trickle, upsetting the delicate hair-growth cycle. Meditation, deep breathing, exercise, acupuncture, acupressure, yoga, t’ai chi, reflexology, and massage therapy can all reduce stress safely and effectively.