While it affects both men and women, the origins of hair loss are normally different for each.
In men, androgenetic alopecia is the most common cause (1). This disorder, prevalence of which increases with age, first manifests as thinning and then loss of the hair shafts on the top of the scalp. It’s caused by the abnormal presence of receptors of DHT, a derivative of the male reproductive hormone, on the hair bulb at the base of the follicle: the hair renewal cycle speeds up, prematurely exhausting the follicle’s ‘regrowth’ capacity. It often runs in families though it can skip one or more generations.
In women, hair loss is often due to taking oral contraceptives, or HRT prescribed for symptoms of the menopause (2). It may also be a sign of vitamin or mineral deficiencies, or thyroid dysfunction (3).
In addition to long-term alopecia, people can also suffer temporary hair loss, usually after a period of intense stress or a psychological shock. It normally resolves spontaneously once the triggering factor has gone: this is referred to as telogen effluvium (4).
A number of studies have demonstrated lower serum zinc levels in those affected by hair loss compared with controls (5). While the role played by zinc in strengthening the hair needs clarification, a commonly-advanced theory is that it has an inhibitory effect on regression of the hair follicle.
Fine, brittle hair in women who suffer heavy periods may be a sign of deficiency in iron (6). This mineral plays a part in the normal transport of oxygen in the body and thus directly contributes to good oxygenation of the hair follicles, a prerequisite for ensuring new hair growth. If you’re concerned you may be lacking in iron, a blood test to check your ferritin levels should provide a diagnosis.
One study suggests that certain types of alopecia (alopecia areata), may be associated with elevated levels of inflammatory interleukins (including IL-6) (7). According to the study’s authors, taking maca to boost the body’s defenses could have a beneficial effect on IL-6 levels, a conclusion that may open the way to potential applications in the field of hair loss.
What’s more, maca has a nutrient-rich composition (vitamins, minerals, amino acids …) conducive to cell reproduction within the hair bulb: indeed many naturopaths recommend it for its scalp-stimulating properties (8).
Considered by many to be a super-food, spirulina has a fortifying and remineralising effect on the whole body (9). Surprisingly rich in nutrients – particularly proteins and B vitamins – it may indirectly benefit the production of keratin, a key substance for rebuilding hair fibres. Used in the form of a scalp mask or oral supplements, it could thus restore thickness to fine hair.
We don’t normally associate bee-source products with maintaining hair strength, yet royal jelly appears to offer excellent support in this respect. The sole food of bee larvae in the first three days of life, it contains amino acids, sugars, vitamins, minerals and trace elements, ensuring growth and resilience (10). It’s thought to exert a similar strengthening effect on our hair, especially on the roots.
Combined with pollen, royal jelly may also act as natural shield against external aggressors likely to weaken the hair and cause it to fall out.
Though not an anti-hair loss supplement as such, brewer’s yeast significantly improves hair quality during regrowth. Like spirulina, this complex of single-cell fungi may provide a ‘shot in the arm’ effect to keratin which, let’s remember, makes up 95% of the composition of the hair shaft. This effect may be due to its high nutrient content and richness in proteins, vitamins (particularly B vitamins) and minerals (11).
Involved in metabolism and cellular activity, the B group vitamins play an important part in maintaining the body as a whole. While the precise role played by micronutrients in hair loss is still the subject of scientific debate, it appears that certain deficiency states may affect the hair’s ability to self-renew (12):
It’s worth noting that certain supplements (such as the formulation Keranat) combine, in a single capsule, a number of compounds beneficial for hair health: zinc, biotin, plant oils …
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