Hair Today, Gone tomorrow!
Americans are obsessed with their hair—especially so when they are losing it. Hair loss is an emotionally devastating experience, perhaps more so than any other disorder related to appearance. A healthy head of hair is touted as essential to sex appeal as well as being an indicator of generally fitness and vigor.
We are assaulted with images and messages daily that associate a beautiful, bountiful head of hair with desirability—TV commercials, print ads, radio spots are all full of hair care products and hucksterism for those unfortunate enough to be losing theirs.
Hair loss and its treatment are big business. It has been estimated that in the United States more than 3.5 billion dollars are spent annually in treatment for hair loss. Sadly, a good number of the products offered up as a hair loss solution are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.
Knowing the Cause Determines the Treatment
An understanding of what causes hair loss is essential to knowing how to treat the problem. There are a number of causes—and these can vary depending on the gender of the person suffering hair loss. Male pattern baldness is well known—less recognized is the fact that there is also a female version of this syndrome and both are called by the same name: androgenic alopecia.
Stress can cause hair loss; thyroid dysfunction is a major cause of the problem, as are vitamin deficiencies due to a poor diet or dramatic weight loss; traumatic illness and injury can bring it on as can chemical damage to hair from overuse of dyes, perms, even blow dryers.
Male Pattern Baldness
The most common cause of hair loss for men is male pattern baldness or androgenic alopecia. The term “androgenic” explains the cause of this type of hair loss—androgens are hormones produced by the male body and a genetic predisposition towards the condition is determined at conception when genetic characteristics are inherited.
The best hair treatments for men most generally are products that address the hormonal effect on the condition. While nothing can be done to change the inherited tendency towards male pattern baldness, it can be treated with drugs that block the conversion of testosterone into a more potent hormone called dihydrotestosterone which widely recognized as the root cause of the problem.
Among these treatments are:
• Propecia/Finasteride works by blocking an enzyme (“5 alpha reductase”) which is associated with the production of dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT has the effect of shrinking hair follicles which makes healthy hair growth impossible. This drug was originally developed as a treatment for prostate cancer, DHT also being complicit in its formation; its side effect of helping to retain hair and promote its healthy growth was discovered by accident. Finasteride was approved in a 1 mg dosage for hair loss treatment in 1998.
• Minoxidil (Ioniten). The first medication approved for hair loss, like Finasteride it was developed for another purpose, the treatment of high blood pressure. Again a side effect of the medication that was widely reported was spontaneous hair growth. In pill form this could occur in unexpected and undesirable places—foreheads, hands, upper cheeks; it was suggested that a topical application of a Minoxidil ointment directly to the scalp might circumvent this problem. It became a hair loss treatment revolution—but is considered somewhat marginally effective, in that it does not address the hormonal basis of the issue directly. Minoxidil is still widely recommended for treatment of male pattern baldness, especially for those individuals who have not been able to tolerate Finasteride treatments.
Female Pattern Baldness
Women are not as widely recognized as suffering from androgenic alopecia, but it is a leading cause of women’s hair loss, and is less well understood as a medical/genetic phenomenon than is male pattern baldness. Hair loss treatments for women largely differ from those of men, with the exception of the topical application of Minoxidil. Because the condition is caused by the overproduction of male hormones (women produce both female and male hormones, it is thought that imbalances in the ratios are a cause of female pattern baldness), medications that address this issue are the basis for female hair loss treatment.
• Ketoconazole (Nizoral) is, like Minoxidil, a topical treatment applied directly to a woman’s scalp. The medication was developed to treat fungal infections; once again a side affect—a curbing of testosterone production—proved its value as a treatment for hair loss. This medication treats female androgenic alopecia at its cause and is also beneficial for hair loss due to other scalp conditions.
• Spironolactone (Aldactone) is “androgen receptor inhibitor” meaning that it keeps androgen chemicals from binding to receptors in the hair follicles. This medication was originally developed as a treatment for water retention.
• Cimetidine (Tagamet) another androgen receptor inhibitor; developed as a medication for ulcers. Cimetidine has been effective in the treatment of excess facial hair growth due to overproduction of androgens in the body, suppression of androgens leads to healthy hair growth on the head.
• Estrogen and Progesterone are female hormones which are available in pill or topical form. These medications address the imbalance between female and male hormones which are often the issue with female androgenic alopecia.
• Oral contraceptives work by decreasing androgen production in the ovaries; their use is very effective due to this in the treatment of female pattern baldness.
For those not suffering with the genetic predisposition towards hair loss, where dietary and stress factors may be the root cause, there are a number of very well regarded natural hair loss remedies.
When hair loss is the result of a vitamin deficiency—which is often the case when the causative event is stress, major injury, illness or surgery, dramatic weight loss—making changes to the diet and taking specific vitamins determined to be effective in combating hair loss may reverse the trend.
Among the most well regarded supplements are:
• The “B” vitamins are naturally occurring in yeast, veggies, egg yolk, whole grain and some meat, chicken and dairy but are often NOT consumed in large enough amounts to maintain healthy levels in the body. This is due to the popular misconception that egg yolks and meat and yeast based breads are “bad food” and should be eliminated from a healthy diet.
• Vitamin A is a key component in the healthy production of sebum, an oily secretion of the glands of the scalp, necessary for healthy hair follicles and hair growth. This vitamin is found mostly in fruits and vegetables, but is also plentiful in dairy products and beef which again are often eliminated from the modern diet as being unhealthy. Supplements are one way to address the lack of dietary sources. Fish oil supplements are another source of this important antioxidant.
• Vitamin C is yet another antioxidant. Found primarily in fruits and vegetables which most Americans do not consume in sufficient amounts to maintain healthy body levels.
• Vitamin E aids in the absorption of dietary nutrients and also encourages the production—like Vitamin A– of sebum. Natural sources are nuts and seeds; sunflower, safflower and corn oils; peanut butter, broccoli, spinach, soy, kiwi, tomato and mango. A lack of these foods in the diet may be redressed by taking this antioxidant vitamin as a supplement.
• Minerals such as copper, zinc and iron in balance with each other and vitamin dosages are necessary to the health production and promotion of hair growth.
The first step for anyone experiencing unexpected hair loss is to determine the cause of the problem. In general, any unusual loss of hair should be reported immediately to the sufferer’s primary care doctor; a discussion of family genetics, recent illnesses, as well as a thorough physical examination may be necessary to identify why hair loss is occuring and what the best hair loss treatment for the disorder will be.