Understanding the cause of hair loss: why it happens and what you can do about it

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Picture this: You wake up one morning, look at yourself in the mirror, and notice something disturbing: thinning hair, a receding hairline, or even bald patches around your head. Hair loss is a common problem that affects both men and women, and it can have a significant impact on one’s self-esteem and confidence. But fear not!

In this article, we dive into the mysteries of hair loss, explore its causes, and provide expert-backed ways to prevent and treat it. From understanding the intricacies of the hair growth cycle to embracing lifestyle changes that promote healthy hair growth, we equip you with the knowledge you need to maintain (or in some cases, regain) a healthy head of hair .

Common causes of hair loss

Hair loss occurs when the amount of hair loss exceeds the amount of hair growth. It manifests itself in different ways, according to Dr. Andy Goren, a dermatologist. “Most people first notice hair loss when more than 50% of the hair has been lost in a specific region, such as the top of the scalp. Another common sign of hair loss is excessive shedding in the shower or while brushing of the hair.”

As we age, our hair becomes thinner and more prone to falling out. This gradual thinning, known as androgenetic alopecia or pattern baldness, can affect anyone. Genetic factors also play an important role: a family history of hair loss increases the likelihood of experiencing it. Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during pregnancy or menopause, can also upset the delicate balance of hair growth, leading to temporary or long-term hair loss. Plus, whether it’s workplace stress or your chaotic dating life, high stress levels can test your mane.

Underlying medical conditions, including autoimmune disorders, thyroid dysfunction, and skin conditions can also cause hair loss. Even some medications, such as those used for cancer treatments, can lead to hair loss as a side effect, Ray Nettles, MD, Stop and Regrow’s chief medical scientist told SHAPE.

Related: If your hair is falling out like crazy, here’s the deal

Understanding the hair growth cycle

To truly understand hair loss, it is essential to understand the intricacies of the hair growth cycle. Below you will find an explanation of the three phases of hair growth as described by Dr. Nettles.

Anagen phase

The anagen phase, also known as the growth phase, is when hair is actively growing for several years. In general, this stage lasts between seven and nine years, although the duration can vary depending on individual factors such as genetics and overall health. During this period, the hair follicle produces new cells and the hair shaft lengthens.

Catagen phase

The catagen phase is the transition period in the hair growth cycle. It’s like a holiday for your strands, which lasts about two to three weeks. During this downtime, the hair follicle shrinks and becomes disconnected from its trusted blood supply. While hair loss during this phase is as rare as finding a unicorn, certain underlying conditions or disruptions in the hair growth cycle can be the deciding factor and cause unexpected hair loss.

An interesting caveat to the catagen phase is that during pregnancy, a person’s hair follicles tend to skip it and remain in the anagen phase, explains Dr. Nettles out. As a result, they do not lose hair during this time, which leads to luxurious and thick hair. However, all those hairs can start to fall out at once after giving birth.

This loss can be surprising to people who did not expect it. But it’s just the buildup of hairs that would have gradually fallen off over the past nine to 12 months. So rest assured, it’s not hair loss per se, but rather the natural cycle catching up.

Telogen phase

In the final phase, known as the telogen phase, your hair follicles rest for about two to three months. During this phase, the hair follicle remains dormant and the old hair is eventually shed. Hair loss during the telogen phase (a condition known as telogen effluvium) is the most common form of acute hair loss, according to Dr. Nettles.

Telogen effluvium can be caused by a variety of factors, including high stress levels, hormonal changes (such as pregnancy, childbirth, or menopause), nutritional deficiencies, certain medications, illness (such as post-Covid hair loss), or surgery.

It is worth noting that the hair growth cycle is not synchronized for all hair follicles. Every hair on your scalp can be in a different phase at any given time. That is why you typically lose about 100 to 150 hairs daily as part of the average hair growth and replacement process.

Ways to prevent hair loss

Dodging the hair loss bullet is all about playing detective and getting to the root of the problem, says Dr. Goren. Our experts also emphasize the need for personalized prevention tactics that target the specific cause of your hair loss.

Nutrition and Diet

While diet is generally not an underlying cause of hair loss, don’t underestimate its role in maintaining healthy hair, says Dr. Nettles. Adequate protein intake is essential as hair is mainly made up of protein, so include lean meats, fish, eggs, lentils and nuts in your diet. In addition, make sure you get enough vitamins and minerals, such as iron, biotin, zinc and vitamin E, which are crucial for healthy hair.

A diet rich in protein, healthy fats and vegetables provides the necessary building blocks for hair growth, Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, a registered dietitian and author of The Flexitarian Diet previously told SHAPE.

Scalp and hair care

Maintaining a clean and healthy scalp is essential for optimal hair growth. Wash your hair regularly with a gentle shampoo and conditioner to rid the scalp of dirt, excess oil, and product buildup. Also, avoid using harsh hair treatments, excessive heat styling, or tight haircuts that can cause tension and breakage, Dr. Gore on.

stress management

Chronic stress is the nemesis of hair loss – so managing stress levels is essential to prevent hair loss, our experts explain. Try to incorporate some stress-reducing activities into your daily routine.

Sweat it out with heart-pumping exercise, find your zen with a little meditation, or dive into hobbies that make your soul sing. Even pampering yourself with self-care is a healthy way to cope with stress. Not only will your hair thank you, but your overall well-being will soar to new heights.

Medical interventions for hair loss

In some cases, medical intervention may be necessary to address hair loss. It is essential to consult a healthcare provider or dermatologist to determine the most appropriate treatment option for your specific condition. They can review your medical history, evaluate potential side effects, and recommend the best course of action. A thorough evaluation can also determine the underlying cause of your hair loss. Here are some available options if your condition warrants medical treatment.

Hair transplants

Hair transplants have become extremely popular in tackling hair loss. However, it is important to understand that hair transplants do not stop the progression of hair loss. The procedure redistributes existing hair follicles, making them look more aesthetically pleasing, explains Dr. Nettles out. During a hair transplant, hair follicles are harvested from areas of the scalp with healthy hair, usually at the back or sides of the head, and implanted into the areas of hair loss.

It is crucial to manage expectations when choosing a hair transplant. The density achieved by transplantation can be much lower than that of natural hair (about 50%) and several sessions may be required to achieve the desired result. In addition, it is essential to choose a qualified and experienced surgeon to ensure the best possible results.

Topical treatments and medications

Topical treatments, such as minoxidil, can effectively promote hair growth and slow the progression of hair loss. Minoxidil (available without a prescription) is applied directly to the scalp and stimulates hair follicles, increasing hair growth.

This treatment option is FDA-approved for both men and women, with a formula of at least 5% minoxidil that has been shown to be the optimal amount for hair growth. It’s important to note that minoxidil is the only drug approved for women and is generally only 30% to 40% effective in this particular group, says Dr. Goren.

Another drug commonly used to treat hair loss is finasteride. This oral medication works by blocking the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT), the latter of which is a hormone associated with hair loss. Finasteride is mainly prescribed to men and requires a prescription from a healthcare provider.

Lifestyle Factors that affect hair loss

Your daily habits can also have a huge impact on hair loss. Here are some things to address in your life.

  • Sleep: Getting enough sleep is crucial for hair growth as it allows the body to repair and regenerate itself. While sleeping, your body releases growth hormones (such as melatonin) that have been linked to promoting healthy hair growth. Lack of sleep can disrupt this process and lead to imbalances in hormone levels, potentially contributing to hair loss.

  • Excercise: Regular exercise improves blood circulation, which is essential for delivering nutrients to the hair follicles. As explained earlier, it also helps to reduce stress levels that contribute to hair loss. Physical activity also promotes overall well-being, which can translate into healthier hair growth.

  • alcohol use: As much as you love happy hour or bottomless mimosa brunch, your drinking habits can affect your hair growth. Alcohol is a diuretic that can lead to dehydration, including of the scalp, also known as the basis of healthy hair growth. In addition, alcohol can disrupt hormone levels, which affects hair growth cycles. Limiting alcohol consumption or opting for healthier alternatives can help maintain optimal hair growth conditions.

If you notice excessive hair loss or significant changes in your hair pattern, do not hesitate to seek professional advice. Dermatologists and hair loss specialists can provide a thorough evaluation, diagnose the underlying cause of your hair loss, and recommend appropriate treatment options. With the right support and proactive measures, you can embrace a future of healthier, fuller hair and boost your confidence.

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Understanding the cause of hair loss: why it happens and what you can do about it

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