Let’s Talk About Hair Loss – Alopecia Areata

I haven’t mentioned this yet and I wasn’t sure if I should. I wanted to focus on lipstick and makeup but this something that is a huge part of my life and continues to shape it. I know that sounds dramatic but if you keep reading you’ll understand why.

I was only 20 when I first noticed a small, completely smooth, bald patch on the back of my head. The timing couldn’t be worse, as I left for a 3 week trip to Europe with my best friend a few days later.

I spent the whole time hiding it from my friend, while mostly unable ignore the fact that clumps of my hair was falling out. The worst was when I was in a hotel bathroom, in Frankfurt. My scalp felt like it was on fire, it was so hot. I was sobbing silently, while trying to brush knots out of my hair and instead pulling it out in heaps. I stuffed handfuls of long hair into the bottom of the bin and covered it with toilet paper.

The bald patches have been so bad I’ve had to wear a hat for months, because buns and head bands no longer covered them. I also couldn’t wear my hair down anyway because I’d leave a trail of hair behind me.

I didn’t know much about my health then. I definitely didn’t know about Alopecia Areata, which is what I was diagnosed with. The problem I had (and that I still have) with that diagnosis is that the dermatologist actually told me, “Sometimes it just happens and we don’t know why.”

I’m not an expert in auto-immune diseases but at the time I noticed that the severe irritation on my scalp was made worse when I ate refined white sugar. I told my Dermatologist this and he completely dismissed me.

This annoyed me because I experienced the worst hair loss when my scalp was inflamed. It wasn’t until later that I really connected the two. To back up my concerns I found plenty of information that confirms they go together.

This information is readily available from Patient Info

In autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part or parts of the body as foreign. In people with alopecia areata, many white blood cells gather around the affected hair roots (hair follicles) which are mistaken as foreign. This causes some mild inflammation which leads in some way to hairs becoming weak and falling out to cause the bald patches.

It is not known why it is common for only certain areas of the scalp to be affected. Also, the affected hair follicles are not destroyed. Affected hair follicles are capable of making normal hair again if the immune reaction goes and the situation returns to normal.

Fast forward almost 8 years later and I still experience irritation and inflammation as a precursor to hair loss.

Having lived with hair loss, on and off for 8 years you can understand why it’s been a huge part of my life. I’ve completely changed my food habits and my lifestyle so I can stop losing hair. The reason that it will continue to shape it though is that I always start losing it again if I don’t take care of myself. I don’t see it as something that I will fix. I can maintain a full head of hair, if I maintain my health. These changes I’ve made, will stay with me, for the rest of my life.

This is why that dermatologist’s words bothered me so much. Through trial and error, and just paying attention to my own body, I now know what causes my irritation and inflammation. In knowing that, to me it’s not something that just happens. Something it triggering it.

Before I go any further, I am fully aware that some aspects of what I am about to discuss have been dismissed by either a dermatologist, a trichologist and western medicine. I also know that I make up a small minority who are acutely sensitive to many things that everyone else takes for granted. It doesn’t make it any less real for me. I’m not telling you to follow my advice. I only feel that it’s something that should be shared because it affects more people than expected. Unfortunately this will be a brief overview, because I cannot cram 8 years of experience into one post.

Now that that’s out of the way …

I did create a blog, Beneath the Hair, dedicated to my hair loss and you can read individual blog entries where I’ve detailed my treatment and experiences.

How it Feels

When my hair loss is coupled with inflammation, it falls out in one concentrated area. I don’t need to do anything. I can shake my head and hair will fall freely. The worst of the hair loss will last at least a day and then slowly taper off. Most of the time the bulb will still be attached to the hair. The area is hot to the touch, often itchy and red. When I press, it hurts exactly the same as a bad bruise, except there is none. The rest of my scalp won’t be sore at all but will develop extremely bad dandruff. I will often develop under the skin pimples in odd spots around my scalp.

These are the factors that directly contribute to my irritation:

Diet

The first food that I noticed caused the most irritation was refined white sugar. I tested this by cutting it out of my diet. This included any small amounts sneakily added to supermarket food. This was by far one of the biggest learning curves I had to take.

It’s in almost everything. I had to learn to read ingredients lists. Food that was so readily available instantly became untouchable. I had to learn to cook from scratch.

Refined white sugar is also addictive. I actually had severe withdrawals the first week I cut it completely and I struggled. I still remember coming out of those withdrawals though and I have never craved it again. Pure bliss!

It wasn’t until I moved to Melbourne that I started paying attention to other foods. At one point, I was severely restricted with my diet. I stopped eating: oils (including from nuts, avocado and seeds, any refined flour (wheat, rice flour), salt, lactose and gluten.

I initially thought that I may be allergic. I dismissed this pretty quickly as I’ve never found research citing hair loss is part of an allergic reaction. However, it was such a drastic, immediate and noticeable reaction to food, I didn’t know what else to think.

I’ve come to realize that it actually feels more like my body isn’t coping with these foods. Or to be more specific I wasn’t digesting them properly. When my diet consisted mainly of fruit, I felt like my body was working and working well. I had amazing energy, my skin was great and I felt great in general. When I tried eating foods that I shouldn’t have the irritation on my scalp started immediately and I lost hair the next day. I get lethargic, my bowel movements change, I often break out and I’ll feel terrible.

During these self-imposed restrictions I found that if I took supplements for my digestion, I could tolerate some of those foods to a certain extent.

Changing my diet absolutely had the best effect on my health overall. I feel so much better not eating: gluten, lactose, hydrogenated oils, white refined sugar or sweetener alternatives and salt. I figure that if I avoid them, then my digestion won’t be weakened and it can work more effectively on the foods that I can eat.

Hyperosmia

I have an extremely low threshold for fragrance, which means that many smells are over-powering, sickening and even headache-inducing to me.

You know when you smell something strong at first and then it dissipates? This is mostly because once your nose smells something, your brain gets accustomed to it and then stops registering it. This doesn’t happen for me. I will keep smelling the same thing constantly and the only way for me to stop is to physically move away.

This is particularly bad when it comes to smelling chemicals. We’ve evolved so that harmful chemicals smell bad, to warn us. Unfortunately, I’ve become too sensitive to chemical smells and it now results in my scalp becoming irritated. I also develop eczema patches, normally on my face if I’m over exposed to chemicals.

It even bothers me if I have to be close to someone wearing perfume or deodorant. I actually don’t smell fragrances anymore. They all kind of blend into one horrible, artificial stench.

To combat the chemical overload, I’ve completely eliminated chemicals and fragrances from my home. This includes any in my skin care and makeup (which is why I emphasize the smell of lipstick in my reviews).

Stress (and our little friend Cortisol)

Cortisol is known as our stress hormone as it is released in response to environmental or psychological stress. The problem is that our bodies can no longer differentiate between actual danger and every day stress. This can lead to both low and high levels of cortisol in your blood, both of which are associated with numerous health issues, including adrenal fatigue.

I didn’t know it then but stress is what likely triggered my first hair loss. I had university,  recently moved to a new city, had a new boyfriend, whom I was leaving to go on a trip with my friend. I think it all just crept up on me.

Hair has a programmed life cycle: a growth phase, rest phase and shedding phase. “When you have a really stressful event, it can shock the hair cycle, (pushing) more hair into the shedding phase – taken from Health.com

However now I notice, that if I become stressed, I start having symptoms of anxiety. My heart races, my chest feels tight and I can’t breath properly. I also immediately feel the inflammation in my scalp.

Stress is probably the hardest factor to tackle. While some supplements can help, it’s the constant mindfulness that can stop it. I always rely on deep breathing and exercise to help ease it.

While these are the main causes of my hair loss, I also addressed other factors that can contribute.

Hormones

At some point my Naturopath addressed an obvious oestrogen inbalance. My periods were completely out of whack and instead of my hair falling out in patches, it was falling out everywhere. It also didn’t have the bulbs on the end and it was worse around certain times of my ovulation. From my own experience, if you treat one hormone you have to treat them all, so it’s really best to see someone who can help figure out your symptoms and suggest the correct dosage. Hormones are finicky.

Dietary Deficiencies

Did you know that a deficiency in zinc, vitamin A, vitamin C, sulphur, iron, protein and or B vitamins can contribute to hair loss? Yes it’s hard to keep track of all your vitamin and mineral intake but it will at least give your hair the best chance of growing back, as well as improving overall health

Healthy Scalp, Healthier Hair

I’m not saying that you can slather your scalp with some hair growth potion and fix your issue, but if it’s flaky and dry, this will hamper regrowth. Limiting any irritation gives my hair the best chance of growing back and everything I do for that is internal. However the surface is important too. I now use jojoba oil to moisturise it. Not only does it help eliminate dandruff, but the nutrients will feed the follicles and that in turn will result in stronger hair.

So there you have it. Please keep in mind, I’ve excluded other factors that can also cause hair loss. These are all the ones that I’ve encountered. As I said before, I’m no expert. I just hope that in giving you a small glimpse of my experience with hair loss, it may help you.

As much as I’d love to not have to worry about it, I don’t see my hair loss as a condition anymore. I see it as my body’s way of telling me it’s reached it’s limit and I need to take time to take care of myself.

 

DISCLAIMER –

I am not a doctor. I am not a dermatologist. I am not a trichologist. I have not studied Alopeica Areata. What has worked for me will not work for everyone. My best advice is to work with whoever is treating you and pay attention to your own body.

I am fully aware there are varying degrees of Alopecia. I am on the low spectrum of Alopecia Areata (I know this because I can grow my hair back and it only occurs on my scalp). 

 

 

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