If you’re in need of an everyday hair wash, you could point
the finger at those circulating androgens.
The relationship between our hair and hormones starts right at our conception and continues through every stage of our life. From oily hair to a dry scalp, thinning hair or a decline in lustre, hormones may be playing more of a role in your hair health than previously thought.
Hormones. What are they and what is their role in hair health?
The human body is a masterpiece; hundreds of functions operating simultaneously, each serving the next, a powerhouse where innumerable systems coexist in a perfect and delicate balance to convert, transfer, regulate, produce and serve.
Within this architecture, hormones are our chemical messengers, forming part of the body’s information superhighway.
They regulate our:
- growth and development
- water and electrolyte balance
- sexual function and reproduction
Whether male or female, within us there are over 50 different hormones, working together in a delicate balance.
They’re produced, released and regulated by our endocrine system and other organs and tissues. You might have heard of glands such as the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, and pineal glands; along with our reproductive organs (ovaries and testes), pancreas, hypothalamus, thymus, kidneys, stomach, liver, small intestine, skin, heart, fat tissue and placenta; in a healthy body, these all work harmoniously as conductors of this delicate symphony of hormones.
When it comes to hair, we know that it grows from our follicles – the sheaths surrounding the roots of our hair – and we need our hair follicles functioning correctly for optimum hair health.
Hormones like testosterone, oestrogen, progesterone and those from the thyroid influence the type and quality of hair developed by our follicles.
They’re also involved in supporting structures of the hair; for example, our sebaceous glands in our scalp produce sebum (oil) to lubricate, hydrate and protect the hair.
When the balance of hormones is interrupted, we have an imbalance – and a direct result of this imbalance can be seen in our hair health.
A breakdown: the main hormones and their roles in hair health (and hair loss)
Androgenic Hormone Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and hair
Androgenetic alopecia is a big hormone-related hair challenge, also known as male pattern baldness or female pattern hair loss.
It’s the most common cause of hair loss, with about:
- 50% of men experiencing hair loss by the age of 50
- 85% of men experiencing hair loss by the 70s age bracket
- 49% of women affected throughout their lives
Androgenetic alopecia is identified by its distinctive pattern:
- In men, hair loss happens along the frontal hair line and crown
- In women, hair loss generally happens down the centre part and at the temples
Those with androgenetic alopecia have a genetic predisposition in which their hair follicles have a high sensitivity to the androgenic hormone Dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This sensitivity to DHT results in a shortened hair growth phase and hair follicle miniaturisation, where the strong and thick hair normally found on our head is replaced with very fine hair, and eventually no hair at all, if left untreated.
Androgenic hormones (androgens) regulate the production and release of sebum, and a higher concentration of circulating androgens means a higher production and secretion of that sebum. Conversely, lower circulating androgens will result in reduced sebum production, meaning dry hair.
If you’re in need of an everyday wash, you can point the finger at those circulating androgens as part of the problem.
Oestrogen and hair
Oestrogen, a female hormone produced by the ovaries, has the opposite effect on hair compared to androgens. Circulating oestrogen will accelerate hair growth and make hair soft, thick and lush. This is why many women find their hair is in the best shape of their lives during pregnancy, and experience the dreaded postpartum hair loss after giving birth. During pregnancy, oestrogen is increased to support the growth and development of the foetus (translating to lush hair), and after birth, oestrogen levels drop rapidly and dramatically meaning that beautiful lush hair starts to shed.
Thyroid hormones and hair
Thyroid hormone imbalances can have a devastating effect on hair growth and hair loss.
Both excessive or deficient amounts of circulating thyroid hormones can affect hair health. Within the hair life cycle, we know there are three stages: Growth, Resting and Shrinkage. Thyroid hormones have direct effects on the growth phase of this cycle, as well as formation of the hair and the production of melanin (hair pigment).
Both hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) can cause the hair to become brittle, dry, and grey, and can result in hair loss.
Unlike androgenetic alopecia which has a very distinct hair loss pattern, thyroid hormone-related hair loss doesn’t have a specific pattern, rather hair loss is diffuse, thinning all over the head.
Cortisol – the stress hormone – and hair
Cortisol, a hormone directly related to hair health, is released during times of stress to prepare the body to adapt to that stress. Cortisol affects the function and regulation of our hair follicles, giving legitimate biological basis to the adage “my hair is falling out from stress”. Acute stress from an accident or surgery, as well as chronic stress from a marriage breakdown, workplace stress or moving home can influence hair loss and is known as telogen effluvium (TE).
With acute stress, hair loss tends to happen 2–3 months after the event, almost like clockwork.
If you’re experiencing thinning hair or a general decline in hair
health, can you identify a moment of stress 2-3 months ago?
Telogen effluvium will first become obvious by an increase in the shedding of the hair, and is exacerbated by a slowing of hair regrowth. The more chronic the stress, the longer the slowed hair growth.
The impact of cortisol on other hormones is one to be aware of too.
Stress can trigger other types of hair loss like androgenetic alopecia and autoimmune hair loss because of cortisol’s relationship with other hormones.
Hormonal Milestones: Understanding our triggers
As a younger person, we’d lose around 100 hairs a day. As we continue to age, the number of hairs we shed increases and, combined with a longer resting phase, results in generalised thinning.
By the time we’ve hit our golden years, it is very common for hair to thin out quite substantially.
For women, the delicate balance of oestrogen and androgens through hormonal life means that hair health changes regularly. Understanding the role oestrogen plays in hair health and a woman’s hormonal milestones can quickly shed light on a confusing or unanticipated situation.
Puberty: oestrogen production starts to increase, accelerating hair growth and thickness.
Pregnancy: oestrogen ramps up to support the growth and development of the foetus. Oestrogen levels reach an all-time high during pregnancy, translating to thick hair that’s soft and lush for most pregnant mothers.
Post Pregnancy: after birth, oestrogen levels drop quickly and dramatically resulting in post-partum hair loss – meaning that beautiful lush hair starts to shed – and lots of ‘fuzz’ especially around the hairline. A lot of women also find the texture of their hair changes after child birth, becoming coarse and unruly.
From the age of about 35 until menopause: the production of oestrogen starts to decline, and androgens can start to dominate the delicate balance.
Menopause: As a result of relatively more androgens, as menopause progresses, many women can experience androgenetic alopecia (see above).
For men, there are two main life stages which affect hair health:
Puberty: where an increase in circulating androgens can cause hair to become coarse and thick
From the age of about 30: testosterone levels begin to fall, declining around 1% year-on-year
Hair loss in men and especially androgenetic alopecia is less about the slowing production of androgens, and more about the sensitivity of the hair follicles to those circulating hormones.
An increased sensitivity to DHT is responsible for male pattern baldness.
In both cases, the length of the resting phase of the hair life cycle (where we see the hair follicle release the hair, falling out), extends as we age.
How can we combat hair conditions associated with hormones?
Is there a one-size fits all approach?
If we consider that hair health is one piece of a larger picture (the body), and that different bodies require different approaches and nutrition, there isn’t, nor will there ever be, a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
As a minimum, look to find some ‘unwind time’ in every day, and, where required, supplement with targeted nutrition.
Getting to know the root cause of your hair concern is also advisable. Each hair concern has its unique set of causes and accelerators, and therefore treatments.
Always work with a healthcare practitioner to identify the cause of any hair health challenges, obtaining personalised advice to help you overcome them.
Addressing the root cause as opposed to just the symptoms will help treat the challenge longer-term.
Given that hormonal issues are systemic in nature, the most effective treatments are internal.
In terms of supplements, consulting with a naturopath, hair nutritionist or trichologist and using high quality Australian-made supplements can help you manage your condition.
Androgenic alopecia is addressed by some using drugs which block the production of DHT, however because of the important role that DHT plays in our broader health, these treatments can have very unpleasant side effects.
There are some herbal medicines which also block DHT, including African cherry (Pygeum) and Pumpkin seed oil. These are gentler in action than conventional drugs which may be a better fit for some, and can be used by either men or women.
Apotecari’s intensive hair growth and repair supplement MANE EVENT is an option too, formulated to improve hair follicle proliferation.
Treatments for oestrogen deficiency can take the form of conventional hormone replacement therapy (HRT), certain types of oral contraceptive pills, or more gentle herbal medicines including black cohosh, red clover, chaste tree, dong quai, liquorice, hops and evening primrose oil. Certain foods contain phytoestrogens – these are a weaker version of the oestrogen that the body naturally produces, however have a similar (gentler) effect. Foods that are high in phytoestrogens include:
- sunflower seed
- split peas
- mung beans
- oats and barley
Apotecari’s supplement HAIR FOOD is rich in plant-based proteins (sunflower seed, pea and brown rice), vegan collagen and native Australian superfoods. It can be added to chilled coconut water or plant-based milk for a dose of targeted nutrition for the scalp and strands, that feeds the follicles and strengthens and thickens the hair. It’s also pomegranate and berry flavoured.