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Hair loss in women

Q: I'm a woman, and I'm losing my hair. I thought this only happened to men! Is there some reason for this? What suggestions do you have?

You are certainly not alone; hair loss affects approximately 30 million women in the United States. The condition can be caused by a variety of factors, and can affect females from their teenage years up until old age. For some, it can be emotionally devastating and profoundly affect self-esteem.

Hair grows from follicles in the skin of your scalp. These follicles are affected by your hormones, your circulation, and your nervous system. Looking at each of these areas is important in determining the underlying causes of hair loss.

It is normal to lose between 50 and 100 strands of hair per day. Most excessive hair loss occurs when a hair follicle is unable to go through its natural four-phase cycle - the growth phase, the transition phase, the resting phase, and the returning growth phase. Normally this cycle lasts between two and five years, but atypical hair loss usually takes place because hair follicles become "stuck" in the resting phase. If this happens to large groups of follicles in one area, bald spots can occur. The good news is that the resting phase can often be "unstuck" so that the returning growth phase begins again.

Common causes of hair loss in women include physical and emotional stress, hormonal imbalances (such as menopause, sensitivity to testosterone, polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid hormone deficiency, or Hashimoto's thyroiditis), an auto-immune disorder known as alopecia areata (in which the immune system attacks hair follicles), anemia or blood loss, certain medications, radiation, chemotherapy, nutritional deficiencies, and genetics. Some of my female patients have experienced hair loss after being on crash diets; others have had hair loss caused by excessive mercury and lead in their bodies.

In traditional Chinese medicine, hair loss is often seen as a deficiency of "Kidney Qi," which can occur when women are overworked or overstressed. It can also occur after childbirth because of excessive loss of blood. Chinese medical treatments for hair loss include acupuncture and herbal tonics to support the kidneys and blood.

In Western medicine, treatment for hair loss begins with a thorough work-up (which may involve blood tests and a scalp biopsy) to identify the underlying cause of the condition. The next step is to find a treatment specific to the underlying cause. Always remember to incorporate lifestyle changes into your healthy hair regime so that you are supporting your whole body, not just your hair and scalp.

Dr. Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu, as well as author of the new book Natural Choices for Women's Health, published by Random House. You can reach her and read her past columns at www.DrSteelsmith.com. This column is for information only. Consult your health provider for medical advice.

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