Hair today, gone tomorrow,” said Frank, a patient of mine. Frank had a good sense of humor and was hilarious describing his many ways of hiding the fact that he was going bald. At first, he tried the “comb over,” combing his hair over the receding corners of his hairline. Then he wore a baseball cap, even indoors, for several years. He tried various creams from the drugstore, but nothing really helped.
Although Frank’s story is a fairly typical one for many men, I also have had a number of female patients suffering from hair loss. Up to one-fifth of U.S. women experience female pattern baldness. This hair loss is directly associated with hereditary factors and changing hormone levels, especially androgens, which means that noticeable hair loss often occurs at a faster rate during or after menopause and during pregnancy.
Hair loss in women typically occurs over the entire head, not just at the hairline or on the crown, as with men. By the time a woman really begins to notice a difference in thickness, she might have already lost up to one-third of her hair.
Although hair loss is definitely associated with genetic disposition, a number of environmental causes, lifestyle factors and health issues can contribute strongly to the situation. Understanding these factors and taking steps to reduce their impact, while improving overall health — especially hair and scalp health — can go a long way toward having a healthy head of hair into old age.
The use of hairsprays, harsh shampoos, coloring agents and other commercial hair products can lead to allergic reactions, irritation and inflammation, processes that also can contribute to hair loss.
When I first talked with Frank, he mentioned his experience with minoxidil (Rogaine), which is the only approved drug for hair loss in men and women. Minoxidil can slow hair loss and may help regrow hair in about 20 to 25 percent of users, but side effects include itching, irritation and, sometimes, unwanted hair growth in areas adjacent to the treatment. The main problem with drug treatment is that hair regrowth stops after the treatment is discontinued, and hair loss can continue. Rogaine didn’t work for Frank at all, even after he used the maximum dose.
Based on a Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis, Frank had an excess liver condition. The sides of his tongue were reddish-purple and his tongue lacked a normal thin white coating. This condition is called “liver qi stagnation with liver yang rising.”
Frank also complained of head-aches in his temples, another sign of liver stagnation. Stress and excess emotions (especially anger), as well as diet, contribute to liver stagnation. According to Traditional Chinese Medical theory, the liver is responsible for harmonizing the internal environment of the body, and is especially responsible for maintaining the smooth movement of qi, or vital energy. When the liver is out of sorts because of the use of drugs, alcohol, irregular sleeping habits and stress, the organ can “rebel” and the qi can move in an upward direction (“rebellious qi”). This often leads to headaches, a feeling of irritation for no particular reason and bouts of anger.
In Frank’s case, the liver may have been at least partly responsible for the hair loss. Our strategy was to calm the liver, reduce immune reactivity and inflammation, and improve blood circulation to the scalp to improve nutrition and removal of wastes.
I performed acupuncture for Frank weekly for 10 treatments and pre- scribed an herbal formula to “harmonize the liver.” I also gave him a blood-moving formula to apply to his scalp. Because Frank was robust, I put together a strong formula that would help break up stagnation of qi and blood and get everything moving. My liver-harmonizing formula included equal parts of boldo (Peumus boldus, an herb that should be used only under your practitioner’s supervision), burdock root (Arctium lappa), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus) and Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium).
I gave Frank his prescription in capsules, 500 mg of the blended powdered extracts to take three capsules twice daily. Blending the tinctures together and taking 1 teaspoon in a little water or ginger tea also is effective. These herbs are not going to win any awards for good taste, which is why many patients prefer capsules. Similar products are available in herbs shops.
I also made a liniment for Frank that included cayenne (Capsicum annuum) and nettle (Urtica dioica) tinctures and a little rosemary essential oil in a base of olive oil with an emulsifier — in this case, gum arabic. This creates a creamy emulsion that will not separate. Frank massaged about 1/2 teaspoon of the mixture into his scalp every day.
Because Frank was eager to try a full program, we also added a saw palmetto supplement to his regime. He took three capsules of a saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) extract twice daily. Though not proven, saw palmetto might help regulate the balance of testosterone-like compounds in the body.
With herbal medicine and natural treatments, results often are slow but sure, and correlate with the improvements in the patient’s overall health. In this case, the results were dramatic, despite the mixed results I’ve had in treating hair loss over the years. Part of these uneven outcomes are due to the inability of some patients to stick faithfully to a total program, and in part due to strong genetic factors.
Frank’s hair loss stabilized quickly, as evidenced by a lot less hair coming out in his brush. He told me the softer, shinier appearance and health of his hair was a great improvement. A year later, he still feels the herbs have made a significant contribution not only to his hair health, but to his overall health, including fewer headaches and a more even disposition.
Christopher Hobbs’ case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbal- ist, is the creator of the correspon- dence course Foundations of Herbalism; www.FoundationsOfHerbalism.com.
“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health- care provider.