Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of The Guardian – Female hair loss: Causes and Treatment. It’s yet another piece of confessional journalism but again I hope it serves a purpose, beyond drawing everyone’s inquiring gaze to my hair line whenever I meet them, that is.
While The Guardian didn’t go for my ‘losing my hair or losing my mind’ title, I think the point comes across. I literally thought I was going loopy. I was convinced my hair was thinning and went everywhere and read everything to try and find the answer. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve sat in tears in a doctor’s surgery trying to convince a GP that it wasn’t all in my head.
I also saw homeopaths, naturopaths, kiniesiologists, dermatologists and endocrinologists and read everything I could find about natural supplements for women and hair. No doubt everyone and everything helped me along a little – I’m a great believer in holistic medicine – but noone or nothing managed to rid me of the sense that, one day, I might end up having to sport a comb over.
With that prospect in mind, sometimes I cringed when my dear friends called me ‘Baldy’ (from my surname Baldwin) – I was convinced, sooner or later, I’d live up to my nickname. But on days when I was managing to take myself less seriously, I found it quite amusing. I’m chuckling now.
Female hair loss, however, is an incredibly complex subject and I couldn’t cover it all in 800 words in that Guardian piece. There’s so much I didn’t say. So here’s a few more tips, with the disclaimer that I’m not a doctor or a trichologist – I’m just someone who’s quite persistent in her pursuit of information!
For example – in case there are any women who are still looking for answers – if you’re getting your iron levels checked out at the GP, you need to test your iron stores, called ferritin, and not just the iron in the blood. And if they tell you you’re in the ‘normal range’, ask for the exact measure. The range is massive, it goes from something like 20 to 150. I’m at 25 and was the same in 2007 the last time I had it tested. The GP said that was normal but trichologists say our iron levels need to be 80 to 100 to support good hair growth. So that’s a simple solution to some of my worries right there – for the last 5 years my ferritin levels have been on the floor. I’m now taking iron supplements (Ferrograd C) and will get tested again in six months.
But, as I hoped I made clear, iron deficiency can cause shedding and poor hair growth but topping up on iron won’t resolve the hereditary condition, which is linked to male hormones. It’s not that we’ve got too many male hormones in our body – although they can be there for other reasons – it’s that our follicles are overly sensitive to normal levels of male hormones.
The whole picture is complicated, however, by the fact we may actually have elevated male hormone levels anyway – often because of polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS. I was diagnosed as borderline PCOS years ago and had acne at the same time, which is also linked to too much male hormone. That’s why some experts prescribe the pill for hair thinning (only certain types with anti-androgens though) as it increases oestrogen. I’m not going down that route, though, and I never have. And the kiniesiologist helped clear up the acne with a massive dose of Omega 3.
Genetic hair loss also gets worse in menopause, because women’s oestrogen levels drop and the male hormones have less competition. They roam around our body, head for our hair follicles and – if and only if we have the gene – they’ll damage the follicles, hair will thin and eventually stop growing.
Stress worsens the condition since we have male hormones in our adrenal or stress glands. So the more stress, the more male hormones in our body and the more follicles get killed off. I guess the biggest irony is that in writing the hair thinning piece (as I do with pretty much all the stories I write) I put myself under so much stress – to get it right, perfect, accurate etc – that I probably lost a fair few follicles in the process.
One thing I didn’t have too much space to write about is the myriad of treatments – chemical and natural – on offer. There are 300,000 pills and potions on sale in the northern hemisphere, according to the Institute of Trichologists. I went to the Philip Kingsley clinic in desperation five years ago and was diagnosed with hereditary hair loss then. I bought the clinic’s 3M drops (£47 for a supply that lasts one- to three-months) and tried them for a bit but decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life putting drugs on my scalp. I thought there had to be a better, more natural way.
I mentioned the scalp drug minoxidil in the story too – you can buy it over the counter, often under the name Regaine. It seems many women have had success with Regaine and the Philip Kingsley clinic puts some minoxidil in their drops along with the anti-male hormone solution but the clinic says anti-androgens are more effective. I have a bottle of Regaine in my bathroom cupboard from years ago too – I read the instructions but decided against it.
This time around, though, I’m going to take the iron consistently and try the Philip Kingsley drops and see where I am in six months – I’ll let you know. I’d still like to think there was a natural way but the trichologists say No. Others might disagree.
There are all manner of natural things that people have tried and that have helped – I’ve been told about kelp and biotin. Apparently, keeping our bodies clear of toxins and ridding our homes of chemicals like parabens can help keep the male hormone levels down. I’ve been trying that for years, albeit a little half-heartedly. My shampoos and soaps are all natural (and not cheap!). Maybe I’ll try some kelp too and I think I’ll start eating more red meat and protein.
Ultimately, though, I’ve discovered there’s no actual ‘cure’, which has been the best thing about researching this story. I always thought I was going crazy and I was convinced there was something I’d done wrong – the bad teenage perm, the eating disorder etc. Knowing it’s a hereditary condition is a real weight off my mind. I was born with the gene so I’m not going to get back the hair I had when I was 10 or 20 years old. But it’s much better to know that for sure than to spend time and money trying to.
Of course, I’m not denying that my perfectionist streak and slightly obsessive nature doesn’t play a part in my hair anxiety. I know other women who are much more able to just let it go – genetic hair loss isn’t a life threatening condition after all. And as hard as it is to sit in front of a GP and feel they’re not believing you, I would rather the NHS put their focus on spotting breast cancer or other potentially fatal diseases. The resources aren’t there to send women off to endocrinologists and trichologists because of hair thinning. That’s not to deny the psychological impact of thinning hair on women. I’ve felt it myself and cried down the phone in my interview with the trichologist the other day. And I can barely bring myself to utter the phrase ‘female pattern baldness’ without wanting to hide under the duvet – it’s not overly attractive!). But somehow, I’ve found some peace around it, now I know it’s all down to genes.
There’s one other thing that has made me chuckle, though. I love writing these ‘confessional’ stories about binge eating or hair thinning because I really see a purpose in them – perhaps someone will find some relief. But I’m not sure I’m building a particularly attractive picture of myself. I was thinking, if I ever signed up to online dating again, my profile could read something like: ‘Slightly balding, recovering binge eater who suffers with perfectionism, stress and insomnia seeks extremely tolerant and open-minded partner’.
Of course, I’m poking fun at myself here and I know it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And this blog, since it’s inception in spring last year, has been about self-acceptance. Now I know what my hair problem is, it’s so much easier to accept it.