What Is Your Hair Telling You About Your Health?
A healthy head of hair is easy to spot. It’s full, shiny and lustrous with no flakes, frizzies or other visible damage. But what about when your crowning glory isn’t quite so glorious? What can cause this and what treatments, products and tricks of the trade can help you restore your locks to the best of health!
We’ve all heard horror stories of someone who, in the aftermath of some terribly traumatic event, woke up to find their formerly brown, red or blond hair turned shockingly white. Well, don’t worry about it happening to you, because it simply can’t happen. The only way for hair to turn grey is a gradual decline in melanin production at the root, there is no biological event that can remove pigment directly from the hair shaft. However, a physical or emotional trauma can cause a change in the hair. Illness or stress sends actively growing hair into a resting phase, and a couple of months later, all those strands in the resting phase may fall out. So, if the dark hairs fall out and the already white ones remain, the result is hair that looks suddenly grey.
Some people start finding those wiry grey strands as early as in their 20s, while others hold onto their natural colour well into their 40s. The cause is unrelated to how healthy or unhealthy you are. As with so many things, it turns out you can blame (or thank) your parents for the rate at which your hair turns grey. It’s mostly genetic so if your parents greyed early, it is likely you will too. The hair that’s already on your head doesn’t lose pigment but as you age, there is a decrease in melanin production in the hair bulb (or root). So when new strands start to grow, they may come in with less or no pigment thanks to that decrease in melanin. The change happens most quickly in Caucasians, 50% of whom will be at least 50% grey by the age of 50.
Seeing a swarm of strands in the shower drain every morning isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm or a signal that anything is wrong with you. It’s totally normal to lose about 100 strands of hair every day and even if you think you’re losing more than that, remember that your head carries at least 100,000 hair follicles, so it’s possible to collect a handful or two out of the bath or hairbrush without it visibly changing the appearance of your mane. Since those 100,000 or so follicles have different growth phases, even as several strands fall out, dozens of new ones are just on their way in to replace them. So unless you’re starting to notice visible thinning of your hair or bald spots on your scalp, chances are the loss is nothing more than natural, everyday shedding.
If you have iron or protein deficiency, common with the caloric deprivation of anyone suffering from an eating disorder, it is not unusual to experience severe hair loss. That is because the malnutrition forces the body to conserve protein (the building block of all the body’s cells, including the hair) by shutting down hair growth. Since more hair may also be shed, without being replaced, the result can be a noticeable thinning over several months. Thyroid disease (both an overactive thyroid and an underactive one) can also show up as increased hair loss. Once the disease is controlled, hair growth can usually be restored.
Really losing your hair can be a sign that you’ve inherited a tendency for baldness, or it could indicate a bigger health issue. Heredity baldness, medically known as androgenetic alopecia, affects up to one third of men. The hair loss, which typically begins at the temples or crown is permanent. Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease which can cause anything from smooth bald patches to the loss of all hair on both the head and body. The cause of the disease isn’t known, although some doctors feel there is a genetic link. With this type of alopecia, hair normally grows back.
The flaky stuff
Dandruff is one of hair and scalps most misunderstood problems. People often assume that those flakes must mean that the scalp is too dry and that, like skin that’s flaking, it must obviously need more moisture to make it look better. But while some people may indeed suffer from a dry scalp, true dandruff is not a matter of dryness. Dandruff is the common name for seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory condition of the scalp that causes redness and flaking in the areas of the skin that are rich in oil glands. Other skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema can also cause a similar condition in which the scalp gets red, itchy and produces flakes of dandruff. In any case, the best cure is to seek out a medicated (not necessarily moisturizing) shampoo or scalp treatment.
Dull, dry, brittle, and breaking
Hair that looks frazzled, frizzy and fried most likely is just that. We can do tremendous damage by using chemical dyes and permanents, as well as by simply aiming the blow dryer at our head every morning. Like being in the sun, all of these self-inflicted abuses destroy the cuticle and leave hair wide open to damage. Pulling hair into tight braids or ponytails can increase that stress and lead to breakage or even bald spots. But in addition to being a cue that you need to treat you hair more carefully, unhealthy strands can also be an indicator of an unhealthy diet. Without adequate protein, growing hair strands won’t become as strong and resilient as they should be. Essential fatty acids (found in fish oil supplements, wild salmon, and flax seeds) may also play a role in keeping strands strong, shiny and healthy. If your diet is lacking in them, try increasing your consumption and see if your hair eats it up! Of course, what you eat can only impact hair that is just starting to grow, so it will be several months before any improvements are evident.