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Getting to the Root of Hair Loss

Why women suffer from hair loss, and how to prevent it

Hair loss in women is rarely talked about. Our culture places so much emphasis on a woman's hair that to lose it gives a whole new meaning to the term "bad hair day."

Peg Cochran, 51, of Grand Rapids, Mich., noticed several months ago that her hair seemed a little thin on top. She tired to be philosophical about it but was actually horrified at the prospect of losing more hair.

"I figured if that was my worst problem, I should be grateful," says Cochran. "But I do take pride in my appearance, and obviously having thinning hair does not contribute much. Most people would not notice it just looking at me, but I'm aware of it. I can easily live with it as it is now; my main concern was that it would get worse."

About 10 to 15 percent of the hair on your scalp is in a resting phase. After two to three months, the resting hair falls out and new hair starts to grow in its place. This lasts for two to six years. This means that about 85 to 90 percent of the hair on your scalp is growing at any one time. In general, hair grows about a half an inch a month. When this cycle of hair growth is disrupted, hair loss is the result.

The Emotional Toll

Cochran felt that her thinning hair affected her sexiness, even though intellectually, she knew better.

"Thinning hair ages you instantly," says Cochran. "Women have always been meant to have more hair – hair is considered sexy on a woman. A woman who is bald? I don't think so!"

Dr. Sara Romweber, psychotherapist and author of Hair: Surviving the Fall (Rainbow Books, 2004), believes that the emotional toll hair loss has on women is incalculable. This is mostly due to cultural perceptions.

"Our culture views a man's losing his hair differently than a woman losing her hair," says Dr. Romweber. "A man is expected to lose his hair; it's acceptable. However, in our culture, it is simply unacceptable for a woman to lose her hair."

Why does our culture have such different views on hair loss between the sexes? Dr. Romweber believes this attitude has several sources.

"First of all – for both sexes – hair is a romantic, sensual and sexual object," says Dr. Romweber. "For a woman, however, it is an essential, alluring part of her body, one that she uses creatively to attract and keep a mate, or so she believes. Consequently, a woman enduring significant hair loss feels she is viewed by the larger world as an asexual being. We all know that women are often attracted to balding men, but we worry men are not often attracted to a balding female."

Secondly, our culture expects women to maintain their youth, beauty and sex-appeal, says Dr. Romweber.

Many women often experience a deep level of discomfort when experiencing hair loss. Dr. Romweber believes these feelings are largely due to a sense of not living up to society's expectations to remain young and attractive.

Another reason that women have such a hard time with losing their hair is that hair is a powerful symbol of one's individuality. We tell the world a great deal about ourselves with our hair, and the larger world expects it.

"I write in my book that hair is a powerful tool, one with which we communicate without saying a word," says Dr. Romweber. "For a woman it's a part of the body that she can be creative with, a way of projecting who she is."

The Hair Loss Dilemma

There are many reasons a woman may be suffering from hair loss. Aging is only one of them. Hormonal imbalances, dietary deficiencies or changes in diet, a skin condition, emotional stress or sudden weight loss can all impact the growth cycle of hair.

Julie Klineline, from Sallisaw, Okla., went to her doctor soon after she noticed her hair thinning in the front. After a series of tests she was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and put on medication.

"The glucophage has stopped the thinning, but did little to thicken up what was left," says Klineline. "I realized the hair loss helped to signal a serious health problem, so my feelings toward the thin spot became a bit more generous."

"The first thing a woman should do when she first notices hair loss is contact her physician," says Dr. Mary Wendel, director of the Women's Hair Loss Center in Boston, Mass. "Seeing a physician can often lead to early treatment of preventable causes. Also, because hair loss can signify other serious illness, a complete medical evaluation is indicated. Finally, treatment is available to slow down many progressive causes of hair loss, so early treatment may slow down further loss."

Dr. Andrea Lynn Cambio, a dermatologist based in New York City, agrees. She believes that hair loss in women is a broad topic, and a woman's general health must always be considered in classifying her type of hair loss. A thorough medical history should be one of the first steps performed and should include any medications, surgeries, family history, psychosocial history and more.

"A physical examination of the scalp, hair and nails is obtained, and a "hair pull" test is often performed," says Dr. Cambio. "Sometimes a blood test is necessary to pinpoint the diagnosis. A culture or scalp biopsy can also aid in formulating a diagnosis. Usually, a thorough history and an inspection of the scalp is enough to generate the etiology of hair loss."

Another interesting cause of hair loss in women is the constant wearing of tight hair styles such as pony tails. The condition is called traction alopecia and is treatable in its early stages.

Many of the hair loss causes can either be cured or slowed with medication or lifestyle modification. The secret lies in seeing a qualified dermatologist when you first notice your hair thinning.

How to Prevent Hair Loss

Though all types of hair loss are not completely preventable, there are things you can do in order to maintain hair and scalp health.

The following tips by Dr. Wendel outline the steps women can take to help prevent hair loss.

  • Follow a well balanced, low-fat, high protein diet to help keep hair healthy.
  • Take a multivitamin with a little iron every day.
  • Avoid quick weight loss diets.
  • Avoid harsh hair care practices such as tight braids, corn rows, perms and relaxers.
  • If you must color your hair, have a professional do it with good quality products.
  • As soon as you notice excess hair shedding, see your doctor right away. If the doctor seems uninterested, find one who will help, preferably a hair loss expert.
  • Take a close look around your family. If there are men or women with hair loss, you must realize that you are at risk: and yes, women can inherit hair loss from their fathers. If there is hair loss in the family, seek help early and get treatment to slow down further loss.
  • Get a good physical every year and ask to be checked periodically for hormonal problems like hypothyroidism.
  • If you want to use oral contraceptives, ask your doctor to prescribe one that helps prevent hair thinning. Some pills can actually make this problem worse.
  • Lastly, if you think your hair is thinning, don't panic. There is help, and emotional stress can only make this worse. There is help and there are people who care.
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