When I was little, everyone used to comment on how long and thick my hair was. My mom loved to braid my long locks, and I (perhaps vainly) considered it something positive about my appearance that wouldn’t change. Fast forward to two years ago, when my thick and healthy hair started falling out in clumps. This wasn’t just the normal “shedding” that can happen seasonally (experts say that hair grows slower in the winter months). No, this was noticeable hair loss, at the ripe age of 25, and it was driving me crazy.
As I soon discovered, most hair loss is idiopathic but temporary, meaning its cause is never determined but it eventually does stop. (There are exceptions to this rule, such as medical conditions that cause permanent hair loss like certain forms of alopecia.) The problem is, for that time while you’re losing your hair, you just want it to stop. When I experienced my inexplicable hair loss, I became a googling machine, willing to try everything to get to the root of the problem (pun intended)—and I pretty much did. It turns out, there are many sneaky causes of hair loss—but the good news is that once you discover the problem, you can get to work solving it.
If you’re experiencing hair loss, consider one of these factors a potential culprit. But of course, see your doctor to confirm! Typically, when you don’t know why your hair is falling out, your first stop is a dermatologist, but see the practitioner that makes sense for the hair loss culprit you suspect is to blame.
PROBLEM: Iron Deficiency Anemia
Chances are, if you’re not getting enough iron in your diet or have extra-heavy periods, you could be iron deficient. When you have an iron deficiency, you have a lower level of red blood cells than normal. Red blood cells transfer oxygen to your cells, which gives you the energy your body needs, so when you’re iron-deficient a whole slew of health problems can occur, including hair loss.
Solution: Ask your doctor for a blood test to measure ferritin, the protein that stores iron in your body. If you find you’re iron-deficient, eat more iron-rich foods such as leafy greens (spinach!), beans, and, if you’re a meat eater, beef, pork, and fish. It’s also helpful to eat vitamin-C rich foods because vitamin C aids the absorption of iron into your body. In some cases, iron supplements may be necessary.
PROBLEM: Physical Trauma
Physical trauma like a severe illness, surgery, or car accident, can trigger temporary hair loss by sending the hair cycle into shock, causing more of it to fall out. Our scalp does not constantly produce new hair fibers; instead, we have three cycles of hair growth called anagen (the growth phase), catagen (the transitional stage) and telogen (the resting phase when hair is shed). A physical shock to our system can send more hairs into the telogen phase, causing us to notice we’re “shedding” more hair than usual.
Solution: Hair loss from a physical trauma usually happens on a delay, so if you’re currently experiencing hair loss, think back to three to six months ago. Were you in an accident? Did you have minor or major surgery? Sometimes something as commonplace as a bad flu can send hair into shock, so don’t rule that out as well.
Just like physical trauma, emotional trauma can impact our bodies, too. While short-term or day-to-day stress is unlikely to cause major hair loss, intense life events or extreme stress can cause hair loss. Dr. Paradi Mirmirani, a dermatologist with the Permanente Medical Group in California says that “something that causes you to lose sleep or changes your appetite and raises the level of stress hormones” can trigger hair loss.
Solution: Again, most hair loss caused by stress happens on a delay, so if you had a major change or stressful event three to six months ago, it could cause your hair to start falling out now. The mind-body connection is so powerful, and oftentimes the best thing we can do for our bodies is to find peace of mind. If you have stress-related hair loss, it will resolve on its own in a few months. A doctor can help you rule out other causes and may suggest different thickening shampoos or products. The truth is, though, managing your stress with meditation, exercise, sleep and positivity is probably the best prescription you can write for yourself and your hair health!
Related: 6 Steps to Melt Away Stress
PROBLEM: Skin Conditions
Skin conditions such as psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, folliculitis, or fungal infections like ringworm can all cause hair loss. If you have scalp psoriasis, you may notice reddish patches of inflamed skin on your scalp, dandruff-like flaking, and itching. Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory condition that, when it affects the scalp, can cause hair loss. If ringworm develops on your scalp, it can get into the hair fibers and cause patches of hair loss. The patches are usually red on the outside with a normal skin color on the inside (mimicking the appearance of rings).
Solution: Ask your dermatologist to examine your scalp to check for fungal infections or other skin conditions. Depending on what you have, the derm can prescribe a special shampoo for sebborheic dermatitis, medications for psoriasis and anti-fungal treatments for ringworm.
Problem: Thyroid Issues
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is a part of the larger endocrine system; it influences your metabolism, growth, development, and much more. When you have a thyroid problem such as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, you can experience numerous health problems, including hair loss. Proper hair growth depends on the proper functioning of the thyroid gland. If you have too much thyroid hormone, your hair can thin all over the scalp, and when you have too little of the thyroid hormone, you can lose hair all over your body.
Solution: A trip to your doctor is necessary if you suspect your thyroid hormone levels are out of whack. Typically, thyroid issues cause other symptoms in addition to hair loss such as: being too hot or cold, changes in weight, insomnia or lethargy, or muscle weakness. If you suspect your thyroid is the culprit, a blood test can detect it and you can treat your thyroid imbalance with medication.
We love our families, but sometimes, the genes they pass on to us can be less-than-stellar. Unfortunately, hair loss can be genetic not just for men, but for women, too. Conditions such as female pattern alopecia are inherited from either the mother’s or father’s side and cause noticeable hair loss all over the scalp. This type of hair loss can present itself at any age, but is more common after menopause.
Solution: If female pattern hair loss runs in your family, it could be the culprit of your hair loss. Topical medications such as Minoxidil (Women’s Rogaine) can be applied directly to the scalp and have been shown to help promote new hair growth. Alternately, your doctor may prescribe oral medications or supplements to aid in hair growth. But you’re the one who needs to be comfortable with how you look and feel, and there are many alternatives to taking prescription drugs, such as homeopathic hair loss treatments.
A hormonal imbalance can contribute to hair loss in a major way. If you’ve recently had a baby, you know that postpartum hair loss can cause you to shed a lot of hair at once. Why is this? Pregnancy causes increased estrogen, which prolongs the growing stage of your hair. After you give birth, your estrogen plummets and more of your hair follicles enter the resting stage. On the other end of the spectrum, menopause can cause hair loss due to your body producing less estrogen and progesterone than it once did.
Solution: If you’ve just given birth, the increased hair loss will usually taper off and return to normal in about six months to a year. If you’re experiencing menopausal hair loss, also know the increased shedding won’t last forever, but that you can talk to your doctor about changes in your diet, increased exercise, or possible medication. Thickening products like Aveda’s Invati line stimulate the scalp and promote increased hair growth.
PROBLEM: Wear and Tear
We’re all guilty of it: throwing our hair in a ponytail too many days in a row or over-heating it with a straightener every day, but the truth is that our hair needs to breathe! Overstyling or overheating can cause hair loss and damage. Over-processing with hair dye and foils can also cause tons of damage, too.
Solution: If your hair isn’t falling out in clumps as much as it is breaking off or fraying, it’s likely your hair loss is simply caused by overstyling. Let your locks down and skip the blow dryer, curling iron or straightener for a while. If your hair loss is a result of over-processing with color, don’t worry: you don’t have to give up your salon appointments entirely. They sell at-home hair masks and conditioners you can use to repair your strands, and there’s a great product call WOW you can use for gray coverage on your roots that will help you go longer in between coloring. They also sell vinegar rinses that can revitalize and clean the scalp and promote hair growth if your hair follicles are clogged, damaged, or you’ve been using too much hair product.
In the end, after trying just about every supplement and thickening shampoo on the market, my hair loss did taper off, leading me to believe it was stress related (I had a slew of major life changes about six months before my hair started falling out) and partially just a natural change in my hair as I entered my mid twenties. The vinegar rinse did make my hair feel shiny and healthy, and learning to meditate helped me focus on bigger things than the amount of hair on my head. If you’re currently experiencing hair loss, you are not alone! Visit your doctor, do your research, and then stop worrying. Take actionable steps to improve your hair, but don’t let it consume you. You are worth more than the sum of your strands.