Menopause and hair loss
Hair loss (also known as androgenic alopecia) is a common part of the ageing process in both men and women. Hair isn’t biologically essential and in the majority of cases, thinning shouldn’t be cause for any major health concern. But the psychological impacts of androgenic alopecia can be significant: research shows that those affected by hair-loss have higher levels of anxiety and depression and also experience grief, lower self esteem, poorer quality of life and poorer body image.
All is not lost! While one study has shown that 55% of women experiencing hair-loss displayed symptoms of depression, of that same group 89% experienced significant improvements in these symptoms following treatment. Read on to discover why our hair thins as we age and what we can do to tackle both the physical and emotional symptoms:
What causes hair loss?
Unfortunately, androgenetic alopecia is a largely genetic condition. Those genetically predisposed to hair-loss have higher levels of an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase. This enzyme converts testosterone in the body into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT, in turn, causes the hair follicles to shrink with each growth cycle, resulting in progressively thinner hair and – in some cases – balding.
The reason that women experience increased hair loss and thinning during the menopause is because of the dip in oestrogen levels. Oestrogen is thought to play a protective role, preventing the conversion of testosterone into the follicle-shrinking DHT.
Stress can also make matters worse. Studies have noted that this may be another reason why menopausal women are more likely to experience hair loss; they’re also more likely to experience external stress factors such as the death of a parent.
How can we recognise androgenic alopecia?
Female androgenic alopecia is characterised by a diffused thinning of hair over the crown of the head. Women might notice a widening of their natural hair parting or a less full ponytail. However, if hair-loss more closely resembles male-pattern balding (a receding hair line, for example), this might be a sign of a different hormonal condition such as polycystic ovarian syndrome. Other symptoms of PCOS include weight gain, acne, excessive facial hair growth and irregular periods.
Poor diet and iron-deficiency can also result in hair-loss. The NHS advises consulting a GP if you have sudden hair loss, develop bald patches, lose hair in clumps or experience itching or burning sensations on the scalp.
What can be done to treat hair-loss?
As oestrogen can help to protect hair follicles from shrinking, one obvious and effective treatment is to add oestrogen back into the body. GPs can prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in the form of body-identical estrogen patches or gel. Both are derived from the wild yam plant and are considered safer than older pill forms of HRT as they are transdermal, so do not go through the liver.
Eating foods rich in phyto-oestrogens (flax seeds, soya milk and tofu, for example) can also help boost oestrogen levels. These foods must be eaten daily and in significant quantities (ie. at each mealtime) if they are to have a meaningful impact.
Applying 2% or 5% minoxidil solution daily may help to slow down the progression of hair loss and partially restore hair growth in some women. When applied to the scalp, minoxidil works by increasing blood supply to the area, bolstering the follicles with the nutrients they need to prevent shrinking. The treatment can be purchased over-the-counter and must be used for 6 months for any visible results. It’s important to note that minoxidil only works for as long as it is used and the sooner treatment is begun, the better the chance of success.
A more invasive but highly effective treatment, hair transplants work by extracting tiny hair follicles and transplanting them into the affected areas. The treatments are expensive but have high success rates and produce natural-looking – and permanent – results.
Be wary of shampoos that promise increased hair growth – minoxidil is currently the only ingredient that has been clinically approved for the treatment of hair loss. Scalp cosmetics, however, can help to give the illusion of fuller thicker hair – particularly at the parting and hair line. Colour Wow’s Root Cover Up (spacenk.com, £28.50) is an effective and water-resistant option.
Wigs and head coverings
If hair loss is extensive, some women may find that a wig or head covering can give them a life-changing confidence boost. Wigs are widely available on the high street, online and from the NHS – Alopecia UK has a thorough and informative guide here. Do be aware of the latest concerns regarding the use of human hair and its link to modern slavery and trafficking. Leading hairdresser and wig maker Denise McAdam now only works with synthetic hair for this reason.
One study found that the four most common reactions to hair-loss are: not prepared, shocked, embarrassed and a loss of sense of self. Many women benefit from joining a support group, speaking to a loved one or going to see a counsellor during this time.
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