Sometimes what we see in the mirror every morning can affect our self-esteem more directly than any other event of the day. For men and women who are losing their hair, the mirror provides an unpleasant documentation of the problem. The extent to which hair loss and balding affects people’s lives is reflected in the millions of dollars spent each year on expensive products—both prescription and alternative—that purport to cure the problem. The few prescription drugs available for balding work in some cases, but not for all. Some can be accompanied by serious side effects.
If you’re experiencing hair loss, don’t rule out natural alternatives. Although no remedy will work for everyone, natural approaches have helped many.
“Herbal medicine has a variety of ways to contribute to the extreme slowing down of this process and the minor expression of genetics—as opposed to being completely bald like our ancestors,” says Thomas Lee, a naturopathic physician in Phoenix who has worked with dozens of balding men. Most of these men came to him for other health problems and began noticing within a few months that the herbal support and lifestyle changes were also resulting in thicker hair and less gray, he says.
Understanding hair loss
Hairs are made of the protein keratin, the same substance in nails and skin, and their growth is most often triggered by hormones. When a man reaches puberty and testosterone levels start to rise, he begins to develop underarm, pubic, and facial hair. For many men, the hormones at this stage are also believed to initiate what in later years will become male pattern baldness.
Each hair, which rises out of a bulblike follicle, goes through a cycle of growth for up to about five years. It then stops growing and shifts into a period of rest, after which it falls out and a new hair begins to grow. This cycle happens throughout our lives, and even people with healthy hair lose up to 100 hairs a day.
Hair loss can be caused by a number of factors, including circulation, stress, hormonal changes, and nutrition. But the most potent influence—and the toughest to combat—is genetics. In people experiencing genetic hair loss, there are believed to be more hormone receptors in the balding areas of the scalp. One male hormone that is converted from testosterone, called dihydrotestosterone (DHT), damages the hair follicles so that the hairs gradually become finer and the growth cycles shorter. The conversion of healthy male hormones to unwanted DHT is driven by an enzyme produced mainly in the prostate and adrenal glands. DHT also plays a role in prostate enlargement, so the two conditions are linked.
According to the American Hair Loss Council, more than half of all American men experience significant hair loss by the age of forty-five. Although pattern baldness also occurs in women, they have much lower levels of DHT, and the problem is almost always much less pronounced, resulting in thinning hair rather than bald heads; in women, the hair loss is often linked to the adrenal glands, Lee says.
Other causes of hair loss include auto-immune diseases, stress, poor nutrition, and side effects of radiation or medication for conditions ranging from arthritis and gout to heart problems and depression. Dealing first with those problems may well eliminate further hair loss.
What to do
Once the hair follicles die and a man has been bald for some time, it becomes impossible to revive the follicles and reverse the process. The lesson here is a common refrain today: Prevention is the best cure. Don’t wait until it’s too late or your only options are a toupee, a transplant, or some hair product that comes in a spray can.
The first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of hair loss was Rogaine (minoxidil), originally developed to fight hypertension. Applied as a cream, Rogaine doesn’t work for everyone and doesn’t block the formation of DHT, so its effects on hair growth last only as long as a man uses the treatment, and it doesn’t prevent the deterioration of the follicle. More recently, a DHT blocker, Propecia (finasteride), won approval, but for a small number of men it has unfortunate side effects, including decreased sexual desire and impotence. Propecia doesn’t prevent baldness in women, and because it has been associated with birth defects, the FDA recommends that pregnant women avoid contact with the drug.
The natural treatment approaches, which have not been studied and tested for hair loss the way the pharmaceuticals have, generally focus on substances that help block the formation of DHT and restore vitality to the remaining hair follicles.
Among the herbs that naturopathic physicians often use to slow down hormonal effects are saw palmetto, pygeum, horsetail, corn silk, and licorice. (See “Healthy hair, the natural way” on page 56 for more detail.) Rosemary, horsetail, and nettle are among another category of herbs that encourage hair growth by promoting blood circulation to the scalp and unclogging pores so that nutrients get to the follicle more easily. General herbs for circulation such as ginkgo are also sometimes used, and women experiencing pattern baldness will most often respond to herbs that target adrenal insufficiency such as Siberian ginseng, astragalus, or licorice.
Vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are a critical part of having healthy hair and keeping it. Not only is it important to maintain sufficient quantities of these nutrients, but also that you take in a proper balance of them, because excessive amounts of one can create deficiences in another. The answer is good nutrition and a good multivitamin and mineral supplement, or work with an expert on a personal approach that is best for you.
Remember that hair growth is slow and the process takes time. Lee, the Phoenix naturopath, says at least 80 to 85 percent of his patients begin to see a noticeable improvement in their hair within four to six weeks, or sometimes as long as six months.
“Whether the improvement is as dramatic and complete as they would have liked is hard to say,” he says. With an issue such as balding, where vanity plays a powerful role, it’s difficult to keep expectations in bounds. So as you approach your own hair thinning, try to be patient and reasonable. The results may be a pleasant surprise.