Has your hair been falling out more than usual lately? Finding more strands than normal on your hairbrush or pillow can be alarming. But hair fall has many potential causes, ranging from hereditary factors to lifestyle and dietary issues. By understanding the major reasons for hair loss, you can take proactive steps to prevent further hair fall.
Genetics and Hereditary Hair Loss
For many people, genetics plays a big role in hair loss. The most common type of hereditary hair loss is androgenic alopecia, also known as male or female pattern baldness.
Androgenic alopecia occurs when hair follicles are sensitive to normal levels of androgens, the male hormones that are present in both men and women. The androgens cause the hair follicles to shrink, leading to shorter and finer strands of hair. Eventually, the follicle stops producing hair completely.
Male pattern baldness usually begins with a receding hairline at the temples, leaving an M-shaped hairline. The top of the head also starts thinning, typically leaving hair only at the sides and back of the head.
In women, androgenic alopecia begins with gradual thinning at the part line, followed by increasing diffuse hair loss radiating from the top of the head. Unlike men, women rarely have a completely bald spot.
Genetics plays a big role in androgenic alopecia. If your parents experienced early onset hair loss, you have a greater chance of experiencing it too. But other factors like hormones, age and stress can influence your genetic predisposition.
Hormonal Changes and Imbalances
Hormones have a major effect on hair growth cycles. Any hormonal imbalance or shift can disrupt the hair growth cycle and cause excessive shedding and hair fall.
Excess androgens are a common culprit behind hair loss. Higher levels of androgens can cause the hair follicles to shrink, resulting in hair fall. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition affecting women, can cause elevated androgens and hair loss.
Pregnancy involves significant hormonal changes like surges in estrogen levels. Many women experience increased hair shedding post-pregnancy. The abrupt drop in estrogen levels after delivery triggers excess hair fall a few months later.
Menopause brings declining estrogen levels, which can thin hair and trigger hair loss in some women. Thyroid disorders like hypothyroidism can also cause hair loss due to hormonal imbalances. Medical conditions like Cushing's disease produce high levels of cortisol, which causes increased shedding.
Medical Conditions That Cause Hair Loss
Certain medical conditions can trigger temporary or permanent hair loss.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that causes hair to fall out suddenly, often in patches. The immune system mistakenly attacks the hair follicles, stopping hair growth. Alopecia areata can cause complete baldness (alopecia totalis) or complete loss of body hair (alopecia universalis).
Scalp infections like ringworm can invade hair follicles and cause scaly patches of baldness. Bacterial or fungal infections can also create swollen, tender spots on the scalp that lead to hair fall.
Skin conditions like psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis and eczema can cause red, itchy and inflamed patches on the scalp. This can disrupt the hair growth cycle and cause hair loss.
Medical treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy are infamous causes of hair loss. Other medications used to treat conditions like heart disease, arthritis, depression and high blood pressure can also sometimes lead to hair shedding as a side effect.
Age-Related Changes in Hair Follicles
Aging naturally causes changes in hair follicles that can lead to hair fall or thinning hair. Hair growth slows as we get older. Hair also starts to lose its natural pigment, resulting in gray or white strands.
By the age of 50, about 50% of women experience some hair loss or thinning. This is because hair follicles shrink, producing thinner hair strands with less pigment. The hair growth cycle also shortens, with a longer resting phase and shorter growing phase.
Post-menopausal women produce lower levels of estrogen, which can thin out hair. Age-related cell damage from oxidative stress and inflammation can also contribute to hair follicle decline.
While age-related hair loss is normal, extreme hair shedding or bald patches may indicate an underlying medical issue. So it's important to see your doctor if you notice sudden changes in hair growth.
Nutritional Deficiencies Can Disrupt Hair Health
Getting enough protein and essential nutrients is vital for healthy hair. Nutritional deficiencies can disrupt the hair growth cycle and cause excessive shedding.
Protein is the building block of hair. Inadequate protein intake can lead to reduced hair growth and hair loss. Get sufficient protein from foods like eggs, meat, fish, beans, nuts and grains.
Iron deficiency is a common cause of hair loss. Iron carries oxygen to hair follicles which need oxygen to grow. Low iron causes anemia which disrupts hair growth cycles. Boost your iron intake by eating spinach, red meat, lentils and fortified cereals.
Zinc is involved in cell division and protein synthesis for hair growth. Zinc deficiency can lead to hair shedding. Pumpkin seeds, oysters, beef and yogurt are good zinc sources.
Vitamin D helps create new hair follicles and hair growth cycles. Lack of vitamin D can trigger hair loss. Get your vitamin D from fatty fish, eggs, fortified foods and moderate sun exposure.
Biotin, a B-complex vitamin, helps strengthen hair strands and prevent brittle hair. Biotin deficiency can cause hair dryness and loss. Eat biotin-rich foods like almonds, eggs, salmon, avocados and sweet potatoes.
Vitamin C promotes collagen production, which strengthens hair strands. Low vitamin C causes dry, weak hair that breaks off easily. Citrus fruits, red peppers, strawberries and broccoli can provide vitamin C.
A nutritious, balanced diet with all essential vitamins and minerals will help maintain healthy hair and prevent excessive shedding caused by deficiencies.
Medications Can Trigger Hair Loss as a Side Effect
Certain prescription drugs and medications can cause hair loss for some individuals as an uncommon side effect.
Medications that can potentially cause hair shedding include:
- Blood thinners like Warfarin
- Cholesterol lowering drugs like Statins
- Anti-acne medications like Lithium
- Anti-depressants like Fluoxetine
- Mood stabilizers like Lithium
- Anti-convulsants like Phenytoin
- Cancer chemotherapy drugs
- Birth control pills
How medications trigger hair loss is not fully understood. The mechanisms likely involve their interactions with hormone receptors or vitamin and mineral absorption.
Hair loss from medications tends to occur within 3-6 months of starting treatment. The hair loss may be all over the scalp or in patches. The hair loss is usually reversible once the medication is stopped.
If you notice sudden hair shedding after starting a new medication, consult your doctor about potential side effects or alternatives. Never stop a prescribed medication without medical guidance.
Harsh Hair Care Practices Damage Hair Over Time
Certain hair care habits and hairstyles can damage hair follicles, leading to breakage and eventual hair loss over time.
Using extremely hot tools like curling irons, flat irons and hair dryers can burn and dry out hair. This causes brittleness, split ends and breakage that can worsen hair fall. Limit heat tool use, use lower temperatures and always apply a heat protectant.
Chemical treatments like hair dye, bleach, perms and relaxers can damage the protein structure of hair. This leads to dry, brittle strands that are prone to snapping off. Go easy on chemical treatments or use gentler, natural dyes when possible.
Tight hairstyles like braids, cornrows, tight buns or ponytails put strain on the hair near the scalp. Constant pulling and tension can cause traction alopecia, where hair is ripped out or permanently damaged. Avoid tight styles and give hair a break between wearing such styles.
Vigorously brushing or combing wet hair can tug on strands and pull them out by the roots. Use wide-toothed combs and brush hair gently when wet to prevent breakage.
Harsh shampoos can strip natural oils, causing dryness and brittleness. Use a gentle shampoo and limit washing to 2-3 times a week. Over-washing can dry out your scalp and hair.
Being rough with wet, tangled hair can rip out healthy strands. Use a pre-shampoo detangler, wide-toothed comb and gently work out knots. Don't yank or pull on tangled hair.
Tips for Preventing Hair Loss
While genetics plays a role, there are steps you can take to prevent hair loss and keep the hair you have looking thick and healthy:
1. Use a gentle, volumizing shampoo - Limit washing to 2-3 times per week. Use lukewarm water and massage scalp gently when washing. Rinse thoroughly to remove product buildup.
2. Let hair air dry whenever possible - Limit use of heating tools that can dry out hair. If using a hair dryer, use the cool setting. Apply a heat protectant beforehand.
3. Avoid tight hairstyles - Wearing hair tightly pulled back in ponytails, cornrows or buns can damage hair at the scalp. Allow hair to rest loose in between tight styles.
4. Use a wide-toothed comb - Comb hair gently starting at the ends and working up to avoid snagging or tugging hair. Avoid brushing wet hair.
5. Apply oil to the scalp - Massage oils like coconut, almond or castor oil into the scalp to boost circulation and nourish hair follicles.
6. Eat a balanced, nutritious diet - Make sure to get enough protein, iron, zinc and vitamins that promote hair growth. Consider a supplement if diet is lacking.
7. Handle wet hair gently - Don't rub or tug wet hair with a towel. Let hair partially air dry before brushing to avoid damage.
8. Avoid compulsive hair pulling/styling - Habitual pulling, twirling or rubbing of hair can cause traction alopecia.
9. Manage stress - Chronic stress can exacerbate hair loss. Try relaxing activities like yoga, meditation or massage to lower stress.
10. Ask your doctor about medications - Medications like minoxidil or finasteride may help halt hair loss. See your dermatologist to explore options.
Being gentle with your hair and avoiding damage from styles and over-processing is key. A healthy diet and lifestyle also supports healthy hair. But see your doctor if sudden hair loss occurs.