Everything you need to know about iron deficiency and hair loss

How they're related, the causes and the treatment

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For anybody suffering hair loss, it can be an extremely unnerving experience. Many people going through such an ordeal will often express feelings of anxiety, confusion and even low self-esteem. Chances are that if you are feeling any of the above, you have come online in search of answers and effective solutions.

Shedding hair is a completely normal process and in most cases not a cause for concern. We can lose between 50 to 100 strands of hair in a day, often going completely unnoticed. However, in some instances hair loss can be caused by a range of underlying issues.

More often than not, lifestyle factors and dietary habits play a big role in hair loss for both men and women. Typical causes of hair loss include hormonal imbalances, stress, weight loss, illness or lack of proper nutrients in the body, namely the mineral iron.

While iron deficiency hair loss can be stressful, luckily it can be treated through a few simple changes in your daily routine. There is no longer any need to go into panic mode every time you pull out a huge clump of hair whilst brushing or find a monstrous bunch of fuzz in your shower drain.

Below you will find helpful information on iron deficiency as a possible cause of hair loss, why it happens and how to effectively treat it.

What is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency is a type of anaemia where the blood is lacking in healthy red blood cells that are responsible for transporting oxygen to the various tissues in the body – also known as haemoglobin. Iron is an essential component in the production of such cells and their ability to efficiently carry oxygen in the blood; a lack of which results in atypical hair loss.

If you suspect your hair loss is an outcome of iron deficiency, consulting your doctor will allow for a proper diagnosis, appropriate treatment and dosage, and additional tests if necessary. As tempting as it may seem, self-diagnosis and treating yourself with iron supplements is not the way to go. Excessively overloading your body with iron can cause a whole host of unwanted complications including liver damage, heart disease and diabetes, even in cases of mild overload.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency and hair loss?

At its onset, the signs of iron deficiency can be so mild as to go undetected but over time, these symptoms can intensify and become significantly more obvious as the anaemia worsens.

Hair loss resulting from an iron deficiency typically manifests through thinning hair in the middle portion of the scalp as well as a receding hairline along the forehead. You may also notice more of your scalp when your hair is wet or when standing under bright light.

In addition to hair loss, the following symptoms are indicative of iron deficiency anaemia:

  • Tiredness/ lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness/ headaches

Less common symptoms include:

  • Cold hands and feet
  • Inflammation/ soreness of the tongue
  • Brittle/spoon-shaped nails
  • Poor appetite
  • Cravings for non-food substances, e.g. ice, paper, dirt, etc.
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Itchiness
  • Hearing ringing or buzzing sounds in your head (tinnitus)

Why does iron deficiency cause hair loss?

Iron is one of the most important minerals for stimulating hair growth. Research shows that depleted iron levels produce a sensitive reaction in hair follicles whereby they are unable to grow new cells as effectively as those with elevated iron levels.

Iron deficiency is the direct result of either a lack of sufficient consumption of iron-rich foods or a reduced ability by the body to absorb iron from such foods. Certain factors that can increase the susceptibility of iron deficiency anaemia include:

  • Pregnancy

Women who are pregnant have higher iron requirements and must take iron supplements as recommended by their doctor in order to sustain their own increased blood volume as well as the growing foetus.

  • Loss of blood

As iron is carried within the blood, loss of blood will result in loss of iron. Women are at a considerably higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia due to the blood they lose during menstruation. Gastrointestinal conditions may also contribute to blood loss including haemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, Crohn’s disease, colonic polyps, and even stomach or colon cancer.

  • A lack of iron in your diet

If your body does not get adequate iron from the food you consume, over time it will become iron deficient. The body is better able to absorb iron from meat than it does from other sources. For this reason, people who choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle may need to increase their intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods in order to absorb the same amount of iron as a meat eater.

  • A reduced ability to absorb iron

Iron is primarily absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine. Intestinal disorders such as celiac disease or partial surgical removal of the intestine can significantly hinder the body’s ability to extract iron from digested food which can cause iron deficiency anaemia.

How can I treat my iron deficiency and reverse hair loss?

Fortunately, evidence suggests that hair loss resulting from iron deficiency does not permanently scar or damage hair follicles, which is promising in terms of the prospect of regrowth. Making a few simple changes to your diet or treating any digestive disorders can easily help to replace the hair you have lost.

If you suspect that your hair loss is resulting from iron deficiency anaemia, a simple blood test by your GP will confirm whether or not this is the case. If the results from the test show that your red blood cell count is low, you will be prescribed iron tablets to replenish the iron missing from your body.

A diet rich in iron is the first step in combating hair loss. Types of food that are a great source of iron include:

  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs

For those who observe a vegan or vegetarian diet, the following plant-based foods also contain large amounts of iron:

  • Dark leafy vegetables, e.g. spinach, kale, broccoli
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Berries
  • Beans, pulses and legumes
  • Foods that contain fortified iron, e.g. bread and cereal

Consuming vitamin C in combination with such foods can enhance the body’s ability to efficiently absorb dietary iron.

If an intestinal or digestive condition is diminishing your intake of iron, your GP will determine the underlying causes and take further action to effectively treat the root cause of the issue before treating your hair loss.

Other than that, there are a number of hair loss treatments available on the market that have proven effective in restoring hair loss brought about by a lack of iron:

Minoxidil

Minoxidil is a non-prescription shampoo product that is proven to speed up hair regeneration and prevent further hair loss. Approved for both men and women, it is rubbed into the scalp on a twice daily basis for optimum results. Although during the initial stage of application you may notice an increase in shedding, at around 6 months you should be able to detect visible results from the treatment through the appearance of shorter and thinner hair. It is important to note that continued application is necessary to retain the benefits.

Finasteride

Finasteride is a prescription drug only approved for men suffering with male pattern baldness. Taken on a daily basis in pill form, its proven results include a considerable slowing of hair loss and in some cases, new hair growth.

Hair transplant

A hair transplant procedure is useful if the top of the head is affected by hair loss. The treatment consists of a surgeon removing small patches of skin consisting of several hair strands from the back or side of the scalp and implanting it into the bald sections, one follicle at a time. It is important to note that you may need several sessions to achieve desired results and it is not a permanent solution for hair loss. Some doctors recommend taking Minoxidil post-treatment to offset further hair loss.

Laser therapy

Low-level laser treatment consists of light technology that essentially stimulates dormant hair follicles and is clinically proven to induce regrowth for thicker and fuller hair. While it is approved as an effective treatment for hair loss in both men and women, further research is needed to establish the long-term effects of the treatment.

Almost all remedies for hair loss come with side effects and possible risks. It is therefore important that you always consult a doctor before considering any type of treatment, who will advise you on which option is best for you.

 

References

  1. J. Purdie, ‘Iron Deficiency and Hair Loss’, Health Line, Author, 2017, https://www.healthline.com/health/iron-deficiency-and-hair-loss, (accessed 2nd April 2019).
  2. Mayo Clinic, ‘Hair Loss’, Mayo Clinic, Author, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hair-loss/symptoms-causes/syc-20372926, (accessed 1st April 2019).
  3. Mayo Clinic, ‘Iron Deficiency Anaemia’, Mayo Clinic, Author, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20355040, (accessed 27th March 2019).
  4. NHS, ‘Hair Loss’, NHS, Crown Corporation, 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hair-loss/, (accessed 2nd April 2019).
  5. NHS, ‘Iron Deficiency Anaemia’, NHS, Crown Corporation, 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/iron-deficiency-anaemia/, (accessed 28th March 2019).

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