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‘Why am I losing my hair?’ is a question millions of women wonder about, yet few dare ask out loud. Katherine Baldwin, who has suffered from thinning hair herself, breaks the taboo
e’re told our hair is our crowning glory – and it probably is if you have a shampoo-ad-perfect, thick, lustrous mane. But what if you’re losing your precious locks?
Everyone knows about male-pattern baldness but, shockingly, more than 55% of women go through life with less than a full head of hair, too. By the age of 65, over half of us will have suffered from female-pattern baldness. Many women will also experience sudden shedding, when more than the normal 50-100 strands per day fall out over a period of time, due to various triggers. Once the cause is removed, hair often grows back, but not before giving us a nasty shock.
I know from personal experience how hair loss can crush your confidence. I noticed that my tresses started thinning in my mid-30s – I could see more of my scalp and my locks felt increasingly fine. At the time, I was stressed at work, anxious and lonely. I couldn’t get hair loss out of my mind, obsessively checking it in the mirror every day and trawling the internet for advice. I sobbed to my GP and eventually saw a specialist, who diagnosed me with female-pattern baldness and low iron levels.
‘Hair loss is a really big issue for women,’ says Dr Reena Shah, a senior clinical psychologist who specialises in dermatology. ‘It affects their confidence and self-esteem and, at the extreme end, can cause anxiety and depression and have a huge impact on relationships.’ She adds that it’s especially difficult for women because hair is linked with femininity and female identity, often thanks to glossy, airbrushed images of models. So I decided that it was time to tackle this taboo and shed some light on how to help protect your precious follicles.
The most important thing is to find out what kind of hair loss you’re experiencing. In a nutshell – is it temporary shedding all over the head, progressively thinning, or falling out in patches?
Let’s look at temporary shedding first. Our hair naturally grows, rests, falls out and then grows again. But a shock to our system can disrupt its cycle and spark abrupt shedding (the scientific name is telogen effluvium). Shocks can include hormonal changes after pregnancy or the menopause, thyroid malfunction, stress, illness or malnutrition, explains trichologist Steven Goldsworthy. Certain medications, such as antidepressants, some contraceptives and blood thinners, can also have an effect. And yep, chemical damage to the scalp, from hair relaxing or bleaching, can be a culprit, too.
But hair has a delayed reaction, so look back a few months. OK, you’re unlikely to forget something like having a baby, but if there’s not an obvious reason, think: did you perhaps begin a new medication or have a bout of illness? ‘With this type of loss, hair usually grows back when the disruption is over or addressed,’ says Steven.
Another cause? Iron deficiency, as I learnt the hard way. If you’re concerned, ask your GP to test your iron storage levels (otherwise known as ferritin). A doctor or trichologist can advise on diet changes – ‘You can get iron from food such as red meat, fish, eggs and lentils,’ says Boots nutritionist Vicky Pennington – and supplements. Steven suggests taking a supplement containing AminoMar C, a marine protein complex, combined with Biotin, which can help maintain normal hair. ‘Alongside Biotin, copper, selenium and zinc can also help maintain normal hair,’ adds Vicky.
Hair loss is a really big issue for women. It affects their confidence and self-esteem
Unfortunately, some types of hair loss are permanent. The most common is female-pattern baldness – aka androgenetic alopecia. An inherited condition, this gradual thinning is more common as women age, when they’re post-menopause or have polycystic ovaries, and is thought to be affected by a change in oestrogen levels.
It happens slowly, sometimes taking months or years to spot. Warning signs? Hair becoming finer and not growing as long as it used to; a widening of your parting, where the scalp is more visible; a thinner ponytail. If you notice more hairs than usual in your brush or the shower, take a deep breath, bundle them up, keep track for a few weeks and, if you notice an increase, see a pharmacist, doctor or trichologist.
Now, some good news: there are things you can do to help ease, or even halt, hair loss. The main treatment is over-the-counter topical minoxidil – you have to use it for life, but it may help growth in around a quarter of women who use it and could slow or stop hair loss over several months in others (although your locks are unlikely to return to their former glory). So do ask for help.
A more severe type of hair loss is alopecia (as experienced by TV personality Gail Porter), caused by a problem with the immune system. It ranges from areata (patches of loss) to totalis (complete head hair loss) or universalis (total hair loss from the head and body). It affects less than 0.2% of people in the UK and often has a sudden onset. The upside is that in most cases hair will grow back, but as there’s not a real understanding of what causes it, there’s no cure as yet. Watch this space, however: researchers are busy exploring ways to improve treatments and find medicines that target the immune system.
Whatever your type of hair loss, getting proper support is essential. ‘Find someone to talk to,’ says Dr Shah. ‘Hair falls outmore with stress, and I really see an improvement in patients when we work on the emotional side.’ The charity Alopecia UK (alopeciaonline.org.uk) runs support groups and discussion forums where
you can get advice from fellow sufferers.
As for how I coped with my hair loss? Getting a diagnosis helped. I made an effort to eat more iron-rich food to help maintain my iron levels and – as that didn’t feel quite enough for me – I took iron supplements. I also applied topical drops
to my scalp for a while. But I’ve found that the real answer is holistic. Therapy, talking to friends, a supportive partner who loves me just as I am, and changing my job have all helped ease my stress and boost my confidence and happiness. My hair is much healthier and while it’s probably still slowly thinning, I remind myself that there’s much more to life than a thick mane.
GIVE YOUR HAIR A HAND
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