Confused by myths and advice circulating around hair loss medications and supplements women can take that might affect their hair positively?
Regarding the subject of whether hair loss can be helped or hindered by medication, let’s finally separate fact from fiction.
While there is no FDA-approved prescription medication for halting a woman’s hair loss the way Propecia works for men only, women are talking among themselves about ways to protect their hair from thinning and keep it healthy and thick-looking. We asked nurse-practitioner Jodi LoGerfo, who deals with hair loss patients on a daily basis at the Orentreich Medical Group in New York City, for her opinion on whether any of these ways to pop a pill would really improve a woman’s hair loss.
The birth control pill
It’s been established that some birth control pills can actually cause hair loss in women who are susceptible to the androgens (male hormones) they release. On the other hand, some birth control pills do not contain male hormones and have anti-androgen effects, which can protect hair. If you are in your 20s or 30s and suffering hair loss or hair thinning and already taking the birth control pill — or considering taking it, talk to your doctor about a hair-friendly, anti-androgen birth control pill.
Hormone replacement therapy
During menopause, estrogen production decreases, allowing more circulating testosterone, which can convert to the hair follicle-attacking dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This is why hair thinning is common in women who are genetically susceptible. Many women going through menopause have noticed that a wonderful side effect of their hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a decrease in hair thinning and an overall increase in hair health from the beneficial, protective effects of estrogen. But doctors agree that HRT is a short-term treatment; it has been linked to heart disease and breast cancer and is not safe for long-term use. HRT is indicated only for vaso-muscular symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, sleep disorders, or mood swings — it is not indicated for hair loss or for women younger than 40. If you are over 40 and hormone replacement therapy is prescribed for your menopause symptoms, your hair health will be a bonus.
A link has been established between hair loss and the hormone by-product DHT, produced in the body naturally as we age, and the internal use of the herb saw palmetto has been linked to relieving symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH, an enlarged prostate condition) in men, also caused by increases in DHT. Pattern balding has been shown to be responsive to drugs such as Propecia, used to also treat BPH. The hair loss community has embraced saw palmetto for women because it doesn’t affect actual hormone levels, just the secretion and accumulation of DHT, which attacks follicles in both men and women. But since we’re not sure that men’s and women’s genetic hair loss patterns are caused by the same mechanisms, we don’t know yet how or if saw palmetto works for women’s hair loss. But it can’t hurt, and it might actually help.
Vitamins and nutrients
Some women’s hair loss can be caused by nutritional deficiencies, most notably in iron levels and B complex vitamins such as biotin.
Biotin: The addition of biotin, one of the B vitamins (formerly, vitamin H), definitely affects the quality of the hair, making it thicker and suppler. It is a water-soluble vitamin, so there is no issue with overdosing, and usually, young women who want healthier, stronger hair and nails can take 2,500 mcg per day. Women with thinning hair can take a dose as high as 10,000 mcg per day, under a doctor’s supervision.
Iron: In menstruating women, low iron levels can trigger hair loss. It is never recommended that anyone take iron without having ferritin blood levels drawn by a doctor because iron is stored in the liver and can become toxic at high levels. Your doctor can prescribe the correct dosage, depending on your blood tests, if low iron levels could be causing your hair loss.
Your doctor must prescribe the birth control pill, hormone replacement therapy, and the proper dosage of iron, but saw palmetto and biotin are safe for use and readily available in natural food and grocery stores.