15 Things Your Hair Is Trying to Tell You About Your Health
That's not just a bad hair day.
Maybe your scalp has become insatiably itchy. Maybe you’ve noticed more hair in the drain when you shower. Or maybe you’re seeing just a touch more gray than you did a few months ago. Whatever the case, these changes in your hair and scalp could signify all manner of health problems, from nutrient deficiencies to thyroid issues.
“Hair is an excellent barometer for general health because it is viewed by the body as a non-essential and dispensable tissue—it is not essential to survival,” says trichologist Anabel Kingsley of Philip Kingsley Hair Care. “Your hair is therefore often the first part of you to suffer when something is not quite right health-wise.” Here’s exactly what to watch out for.
Excessive oil: Polycystic ovary syndrome
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition in women in which the ovaries develop numerous small collections of fluid, according to the Mayo Clinic. The condition introduces more androgens (male hormones) into the body, which can lead to an over-oily scalp, according Kingsley.
“You will usually experience other symptoms—which can include weight gain, acne, increased body and facial hair, and irregular periods—when you have PCOS,” she notes. “So be on the lookout for other symptoms in addition to the greasy hair.”
Just a few grays: Stress
According to a 2013 study published in the journal Nature Medicine, the hormones produced in response to stress can deplete melanocyte stem cells, which are the cells that determine hair color. That results in your hair turning gray or white. In other words, that age-old adage that someone who stresses you out can give you gray hair may actually be true.
Premature grays: Vitamin B12 deficiency
“Low vitamin B12 levels are notorious for causing loss of hair pigment,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Karthik Krishnamurthy told Good Housekeeping. To prevent your strands from sliding down the grayscale, eat more food that’s high in vitamin B12—like tuna and salmon—or pop in a vitamin supplement.
Dandruff: Imbalanced diet
Dandruff occurs when the microflora of your scalp becomes imbalanced, which can happen from eating certain foods. If you’re noticing more dandruff lately, “reduce bad fats in your diet, particularly chocolate and dairy,” certified trichologist Kevin Mancuso told Everyday Health. These foods can cause more oil production, exacerbating dandruff.
Yellow dandruff: Seborrheic dermatitis
Though it mostly occurs in infants, seborrheic dermatitis—crusty, oily patches of yellow-white scales on the scalp—can afflict adults, too. “Like dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis is caused by a microbe that lives on our scalp,” note the experts at Head and Shoulders. “It’s called Malassezia globosa. About half the population is sensitive to a substance the microbe makes called oleic acid. Typically, this leads to dandruff—but among people who are very sensitive to oleic acid, it can trigger seborrheic dermatitis.” The National Eczema Association also cites stress, hormonal changes, and harsh detergents as common triggers for sebhorreic dermatitis.
The good news? “This condition is very treatable,” says Dr. Marguerite Germain of Germain Dermatology in Charleston, South Carolina. Medicated shampoos, creams, or lotions can loosen the scales and alleviate that pesky itch.
Itchy scalp: Zinc deficiency
“Hair needs a mixture of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements to grow. Zinc is one of these essential trace elements,” according to the experts at Philip Kingsley. That’s because “zinc helps our bodies to process carbohydrates, fats, and proteins–the building blocks of hair.”
As a result, having low levels of zinc could cause an otherwise healthy scalp to become persistently itchy, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Investigative Dermatology.
Fine, dry hair: Hormonal changes
“Hormonal imbalances can definitely be a contributing factor to a patient’s hair health,” says Robin Levin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New Jersey.
For example, a change in birth control may trigger a new level of hormones your body isn’t quite used to—which can lead to changes in your hair texture as well. “We can tell when someone is on a new type of birth control because it can make their hair finer, drier, and less shiny,” celebrity colorist Rita Hazan, owner of the Rita Hazan Salon in Manhattan, told Oprah.com.
Hair loss: Iron deficiency
Ferritin is a blood cell protein that contains iron, according to the Mayo Clinic. And optimal levels are needed to maximize your hair’s “anagen,” or “growing,” phase, the experts at Philip Kinglsey note. When your body doesn’t have enough of the stuff, you can become iron deficient anemic, which causes tiredness, weakness, and hair loss. So, if you’re seeing more hair on your brush than usual, slate more iron-rich foods—like spinach and grass-fed beef—into your diet.
Or a thyroid condition
The moment you start to notice thinning hair, along with brittleness, head to your doctor for a blood test to check out your thyroid levels. Hormones produced by the thyroid are essential for the development and maintenance of hair follicles. So if your locks are looking less luscious, that could be the result of any number of endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, or parathyroid disorder, according to a 2013 study in the International Journal of Trichology.
Or medication side effects
As Lynne Goldberg, director of the Hair Clinic at Boston Medical Center, told The Boston Globe, there are several medications that may contribute to temporary hair loss as well, including antidepressants, anticoagulants (blood thinners), and certain steroids.
Though much of the reasoning is still unknown, these medications may interfere with the normal cycle of scalp hair growth, causing the follicles to go into their “telogen,” or “resting,” phase and fall out too early. The good news is that this particular form of hair loss is largely reversible. If you think one of your medications may be contributing to irregular hair loss, talk to your doctor.
Pattern baldness: Risk of hypertension
Baldness is more than just an unfortunate part of the aging process. According to a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Dermatology, researchers found that hypertension was “strongly associated” with baldness. And though the exact reasoning behind the correlation is still unknown, the findings suggest that hair loss may indicate a higher risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. If such health issues run in your family, now you have even more of a reason to get checked out.
Bald patches: Alopecia areata
“Some hair loss is hereditary, like male or female pattern hair loss, but some hair loss can indicate a more complicated health problem,” says Dr. Hannah Kopelman, a dermatology fellow at Boston University Medical Center.
One common example is the autoimmune disease alopecia areata, a type of alopecia that causes hair to fall out in round patches. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, those with this condition have an “immune system [that] attacks the hair follicles, causing hair loss.” If you’re experiencing such symptoms, you may be able to stimulate hair regrowth with steroid injections or over-the-counter products like Hims.
Dull or weak hair: Too much sun or too many chemicals
While most people are aware of the harmful effects of UV rays on the skin, many overlook the fact that the same goes for their hair. According to the Cleveland Clinic, if your hair has prolonged exposure to the sun, UVA and UVB rays can damage the cuticle, the outside cover of the hair strand. The result is lackluster, brittle, and dry hair.
“If you are someone with dry, brittle hair, you might have overexposed it to chlorine or sun,” says Kopelman. The combination of chlorine and sun is especially potent: Chlorine opens up the cuticle, and UV rays can infiltrate more easily. Thankfully, protecting yourself isn’t a tall order. Wear a hat in the sun and if you take a dip, rinse your hair out with fresh water after.
Split ends: Dehydration
“Water makes up almost 25 percent of the weight of a single strand of hair,” Jacynda Smith, a hairstylist and the founder of beauty company Tyme, told Bustle. With that in mind, Supercuts stylist and hair health expert Caitlyn Perkins says, “Think of your hair like a plant. If you give it all the right things, it will grow beautifully!”
If you find that the ends of your hair could use a little extra hydration, start from the the inside and work on getting the recommended eight eight-ounce cups of water each day.
Weak hair: Too many harmful chemicals
“A lot of store-bought products contain harsh chemicals, alcohol, and even wax. It’s so important to be aware of what ingredients we are using on our hair,” says Perkins. “I always recommend my guests to buy their hair care products from a salon or professional store, so they know they’re putting the highest-quality products on their hair.” And for more ways to take care of your mane, find out the 15 Ways You’re Washing Your Hair Wrong.
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