Understanding hair growth


But what if hair shedding increases?

If you think you have persistent increased hair shedding then one or several of these points are tell-tale signs.

  • Increased number of hairs when shampooing and combing.

  • Reduced 'pony tail' volume.

  • Short hairs along the front hair line.

If you can identify with one of these signs and yet your parting width is unchanged and your hair density appears normal to outsiders, then it is likely that you have increased hair shedding (telogen effluvium) rather than genetic hair loss.

Many illnesses cause increased hair shedding which is not seen until 8 to 12 weeks later. However, the problem should correct itself once full health is restored.

When there is no obvious reason for hair loss, tests often show that the woman is suffering from certain nutrient imbalances.

"I have about a third less hair than I used to have. Nobody believes I have a problem because I still have a lot of hair, but I know it has changed and I am very worried."
Mrs Janine Bedford

It has been known for many years that nutrition plays an important role in hair growth and this has been investigated by checking blood levels of certain variables in women with and without hair loss. In particular, there is a strong correlation between hair loss and low iron stores.

Interestingly it is the serum ferritin level that is linked with hair loss, rather than the haemoglobin level (a measure of anaemia). Serum ferritin is a measure of the total iron stores in the body, whilst the haemoglobin level measures the amount of iron circulating in red blood cells. Low haemoglobin levels can indicate anaemia.

Hence, it is possible to have a low serum ferritin level and not be anaemic. This is because the body tries to maintain a good haemoglobin level, drawing iron from its stores.

Hair loss linked to iron status
Research has shown that a large proportion of women reporting hair loss had low ferritin levels, compared with the levels generally found in women without hair loss, and interestingly in men. The main reason for this difference is due to the loss of blood during menstruation, which is just enough to cause a gradual depletion of iron stores, particularly in women who eat little or no red meat.

Low iron intake has been known for some time to be a potential problem for millions of women, but it is only now that it is recognised that this factor can contribute to increased hair shedding, and that this condition is really quite common.

In fact, in a recent survey of 500 women, it was found that a staggering 33% reported hair loss. This was observed as an increase in the amount of hair shed or a reduction in the length grown, both of which contribute to a reduction in hair volume if the problem persists for any length of time.

So if you believe your hair has less volume than it did a few years ago you can at least console yourself with the fact that 1 in 3 women also consider themselves to be in the same position. If your diet has little or no red meat and/or you suffer heavy menstrual bleeding then this increases the likelihood that a dietary imbalance is causing the problem.

Correcting the imbalance can increase the length of hair growth
Research has shown that if the iron deficiency is corrected and the serum ferritin level is raised to a certain 'trigger point' then hair growth will start. In fact, what actually happens is that the growing stage of the follicles is lengthened so there are, at any one time, more hairs in the growing stage.

This means that hair volume will start to increase and any excessive shedding will reduce. But this takes several months because ferritin levels can only be raised gradually and once the 'trigger point' is reached and hair growth starts, it takes 2-3 months for the shedding to reduce and another 3-6 months for the new hair to reach a length that contributes to hair volume.

Iron supplements on their own are not enough.

Whilst iron is usually the key nutrient, other nutrients also play an essential role. This was highlighted by the fact that a significant proportion of the women who were given iron failed to respond, even when provided with a high iron and vitamin C intake.

This problem was overcome when it was realised that an intake of the essential amino acid, Lysine, was very low in many people's diets, particularly those who eat little or no meat.

When Lysine was added to the other nutrients being given, most women went on to reach the target ferritin level, and their hair volume subsequently increased. It was also found that when women stopped taking the supplements, hair shedding resumed several months later.

A nutritional supplement will correct this problem but it takes time

Hair loss caused by a nutritional shortfall of iron can take years to occur and it is therefore not possible to correct it overnight. In fact without a supplement it may be many years after the menopause before a woman's iron stores return to the level of a man equal in age.

So unless you intend to start eating a large portion of red meat every day then a supplement form of iron will be required. However, research has shown that to increase ferritin levels quickly, you will need a high strength iron supplement supplying 72mg of elemental iron a day, for the first three months, and thereafter 24mg of iron a day will be needed (or double this if you have heavy menstrual bleeding or eat little red meat). For many women this level of iron intake will not have the desired effect unless they also take 1.5g of Lysine plus vitamin C and vitamin B12 to aid absorption of the iron.