Low iron levels could arguably be considered the common factor in women's hair loss. It's often the primary cause, but just as frequently found to be an underlying contributor - aggravating or exposing other problems such as androgenic thinning or alopecia areata.
A significant decrease in telogen shedding rate
Hair in the growing (anagen) phase to be restored to normal ratio
From the time she first begins to menstruate, a woman's bodily requirements for iron is considerable. Rapid growth into, and the activity of adolescence, an average 40 years of menstruation, childbirth, family and career pressures - all contribute to keeping iron stores low. If the woman is then vegetarian or consumes little animal protein (particularly lean red meat) whilst experiencing heavy periods, then she's at high risk to be iron deficient or even anaemic.
Women seeking treatment will relate a history of slow, diminishing hair density from the entire scalp. Emerging over some months or even years, obvious hair shedding is not always immediately apparent to the sufferer.
Low energy, dry skin, lustreless hair, sensitivity to cold temperature; difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia), pale complexion, breathlessness or heart palpitations are familiar features of iron deficiency. Dark hair may exhibit a dry, red-brown hue. Iron deficiency is known to depress the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to infection. Thyroid, para-thyroid and adrenal gland function are all influenced by an imbalance of iron.
Naturopathic indications might include a bright red 'meaty' tongue, nails that split, peel or fail to grow. Iridologists would also note iris changes within the eye.
'Iron studies' is the diagnostic blood test to accurately determine iron status. Within this, the ferritin or iron storage has a usual reference range of 20-300ug/L*. The research of Rushton et al confirmed ferritin is required to be >70ug/l, & maintained at that level (or higher) for at least three months to effect the following changes:
2006 studies by Dr. John Lee - Australia's premier thyroid researcher - found ferritin levels are required to be 125-150 ug/L to promote sufficient quality cellular energy output (termed ATP) for optimal metabolic & liver detoxification functioning. Metabolic activity & Phase II liver detoxification pathways are ATP dependant.
Further reviewing the relationship between iron studies indices allows a differential diagnosis of pure iron deficiency or iron deficiency with insufficient protein availability to be established.
The most absorbable form of iron (haem iron) is found in animal proteins - particularly lean red meat. Iron is also found in vegetables and grains, but its absorption is poor when not consumed with a meat accompaniment. Plant iron (termed phyto-iron) absorption rate is increased by a factor of three when animal protein is added to the meal. Peppermint, chickweed, liquorice & comfrey root, and golden seal all contain high amounts of iron.
Women who are iron deficient should also take a hi-dose multivitamin/mineral complex whilst undertaking iron supplementation. This is because iron deficiency is almost always accompanied by other vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and these synergistic nutrients may be required to correct the iron imbalance.
Important Note: Vitamin/mineral supplements should not be taken as single "one out" nutrients, but rather in a balanced 'complex' form. Excessive or prolonged intake of vitamins B12, D or E - or the minerals zinc, calcium, copper or chromium antagonise the absorption of iron and may contribute to iron deficiency. Toxic heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium) will also exclude absorption. Dairy products - particularly cheese & milk can reduce iron absorption by up to sixty percent, as can teas containing tannic acid.
Vegetarian women, or women who limit their consumption of red meat, should consider adding an iron supplement to their vitamin regimen. Some of the best iron supplements contain both haem and non-haem iron, which makes for easier absorption with fewer side-effects. Consult with your doctor to determine the appropriate type and dosage for you.
About the Author: Tony Pearce RN is a specialist trichologist and a registered nurse. He is a founding member of the Society for Progressive Trichology. Tony has a clinical practice in Sutherland & Rozelle NSW. He is the Clinical Director for Trichology of Virginia/DC in the United States. In Australia he can be contacted on 02 9542 2700, or through his website at www.hairlossclinic.com.au.
Copyright Anthony Pearce 2005.