When it comes to hairy situations, many of us can live with a bad haircut or a little graying or the occasional day with our hair looks like a haystack. But the most frustrating problem for many people--men especially--is what's perceived to be the start of the downhill slide to death, or at least the impetus for wanting that Corvette: hair loss.
While we tend to say that baldness comes from the mother's side, an individual's genes from both parents influence that person's predisposition to male or female-pattern baldness. Of course, hair loss is far more visible in men (80 percent of whom experience some degree of baldness), but nearly 40 percent of women lose substantial amounts of hair after menopause, as well (women tend to thin out all over, rather than develop the signature spots that men do), making it a major appearance issue for both genders.
To learn how you lose hair, you first have to understand how it grows. Hair goes through its own growth cycle that's unrelated to seasons or hormones or anything else. It's a random biological process that's dictated largely by your genetic disposition. The two main phases:
Anagen (active): Cells in the root are dividing quickly and pushing the hair out. It averages two to three years.
Telogen (resting): This phase last for about 100 days on the scalp. Consider it hair hibernation- the follicle is completely at rest.
Doctors don't know why certain hair follicles are programmed to have a shorter growth period than others. One suspected factor for age-related male-pattern baldness is a person's level of androgens- the "male" hormones that are actually produced by both men and women. For many years, people believed that a predominance of testosterone was the root cause of baldness, but it's not quite that simple. We don't know that we lose hair especially fast if it is exposed to dihydrotestosterone (DHT, which comes from metabolism of testosterone). It's believed that the exposure of follicles to levels of testosterone that are normal for adult males causes the hair follicles to go into a resting state. This DHT is formed in the testes, prostate, adrenals, and hair follicles themselves through an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase. The enzyme raises the levels of DHT, and that's why there's a link between higher levels of this enzymes and areas of baldness. DHT changes healthy follicles to follicles that grow thin dwarf hairs- hairs that resemble peach fuzz. Essentially, DHT shrinks hair follicles, making it impossible for healthy hair to survive. Drug companies have targeted this process by making antibaldness medication that inhibits 5-alpha-reductase, the enzyme that makes DHT. (Some infrequent side effects of these meds include impotence, decreased libido, and breast enlargement).
Now, age-related baldness isn't the only reason why clumps of hair start falling from the head like raindrops from the sky. Other causes, especially for women, include low iron levels and anemia (low blood count), recent anesthesia for surgery (it's the stress of the surgery and the pressure on one area of the head, not the anesthesia), menopause or being postpartum, autoimmune diseases such as lupus, thyroid disease, and polycystic ovarian disease (PCOS).
Rapid hair loss is often a strong sign that you ought to have a battery of tests to evaluate your nutrition, health, and hormone levels. And that makes an important point: Hair loss isn't just an appearance issue; it can be a sign that something wacky is going on elsewhere in your body. Inflammation in the scalp, from an overdose of sun or from seborrheic dermatitis, can speed up hair loss. More often than not, it's a hormone issue- especially one involving your thyroid gland. In women especially, it's common to experience a decline in thyroid hormone (that's called hypothyroidism), where some of your bodily systems slow down. Scalp hair loss or facial hair growth is a sign that you should have your hormone levels checked. We recommend having your thyroid-stimulating hormone checked every other year if you're losing hair, or, for all others, once at age 20, then at age 35, and every other year after age 50 (TSH is the trigger from the brain that tells your thyroid gland to make thyroid hormone). If your level of thyroid hormone is low or if it's normal but you are experiencing thyroid-related symptoms, you can be (and usually need to be) treated with a synthetic (sometimes bioidentical) hormome. You'll need to be rechecked six weeks later to see if the supplemented does is enough. For a man, a decline in the need to shave signals a decrease in testosterone (for a woman, it's the same clue if she needs to shave her legs less often).
This material came to you from YOU: Being Beautiful, by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D.