What can be done about female hair loss?

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If the adverts at the back of mens’ magazines are anything to go by, we male folk are quite commonly concerned about the reduced turgidity of our erections and a fall in the amount of hair on our heads. While women are spared the former issue, they are not entirely immune to the latter: I quite regularly see women in my practice who are losing their hair. While scalp shedding tends to be unwelcome in both sexes, it’s gender predominance does help to normalise the experience for us men. However, the relative rarity and cosmetic consequences of hair loss in women mean that this issue is almost always accompanied by very significant emotional fallout.

Experience over the years has taught me that there is usually much that can be done to arrest and even reverse hair loss in women. I find that a common underlying factor in this complaint is an under-functioning of the thyroid gland in the neck. Apart from thinning hair, other symptoms suggestive of low thyroid function (also known as ‘hypothyroidism’) include cold hands and feet, sensitivity to cold, dry skin, weight gain and fatigue. Those suspicious that their thyroid might be somewhat sluggish should consult their doctor to see if a blood test is in order.

However, even if a blood test is deemed appropriate, it is worth bearing in mind that such tests are far from foolproof. One of the main reasons for this is that the ‘normal’ ranges for thyroid hormones encompass about 95 per cent of the population. Such parameters mean that only about 2.5 per cent of the population can be diagnosed with hypothyroidism, whatever this condition’s true incidence. As a result, those with genuinely low thyroid function can turn up blood tests that classify them as ‘normal’. For more information about thyroid testing and potential treatments, I recommend the website www.thyroiduk.org. When low thyroid function is correctly identified and appropriately treated, improvements in hair growth are usually seen over a matter of a few weeks.

Another common cause of hair loss in women is deficiency in the mineral iron. This problem is particularly common in vegan and vegetarian women (who may have low iron intake), and in those who have heavy periods. Symptoms suggestive of iron deficiency include fatigue, low mood and a pale complexion. Iron levels in the body are best assessed by measuring the level of a substance called ferritin in the blood. In my experience, if the level of this is below about 50 micrograms per litre of blood, then this is quite likely to be contributing factor in a hair loss problem.

For those with low iron levels, the best food sources of this nutrient are meats such as liver, lamb and beef. Plant foods that are rich in iron include dark chocolate, seeds and seaweeds such as kelp. Kelp is also very rich in the mineral iodine which plays a key role in the manufacturing of thyroid hormones. Although eating more iron-rich foods can help to boost ferritin levels, supplementation inevitably brings more rapid results. Maintaining good levels of iron in the body and ensuring healthy thyroid function are two strategies that are usually effective for women seeking to cut their losses.

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