Although hair loss is common and affects up to 40% of the population, it is still cause for great concern for men and women. Alopecia is not limited to just men and often causes greater angst for women because of societal standards of beauty. Genetics is the main cause of thinning locks, but getting your iron levels checked is a good first step for anyone experiencing hair loss, because sometimes it may be linked to other more serious medical conditions.
The Bald Truth
Hair loss is usually not seen as life threatening, but it can be life changing and not for the better. Not only is it damaging to one’s self esteem, but it might indicate a lack of adequate iron stores in the body, which over time can cause other health concerns, in addition to hair loss.
The American Academy of Dermatology published research collected over 40 years by Cleveland Clinic dermatologists that linked iron deficiencies with hair loss.
"We believe that treatment for hair loss is enhanced when iron deficiency, with or without anemia, is treated," Leonid Benjamin Trost, MD; Wilma Fowler Bergfeld, MD; and Ellen Calogeras, RD, MPH, write in an issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.”
To be clear, not every study concerning hair loss from nutritional deficiencies has found the same link between low iron stores and hair loss, but research is piling up that suggests that once those with low iron began taking supplements, they experienced a sharp decline in hair loss and even began re-growing hair.
Doctors can determine a person’s iron stores by measuring the amount of ferritin in the blood. Ferritin is a protein that plays an important role in storing iron in the blood stream. The less ferritin you have the less iron your body has stored.
Normal levels of ferritin range between 10-15 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml), but that level may be too low according to physicians at the University of Pennsylvania Hair and Scalp Clinic. Men should really have 24-336 ng/ml and women should have 11 to 307 ng/ml. However, the optimum number is 50- 70 ng/ml to halt hair loss and stimulate re-growth.
Causes of Anemia & Low Iron Levels
Women are especially susceptible to low iron levels because of menstruation. Hair follicles require a lot of iron since they are constantly growing hair. When iron levels are depleted by heavy periods, over time women may begin to notice thinning hair and hair loss. Pregnancy can also accelerate iron loss. So women who are genetically pre-disposed to alopecia, have heavy menstrual periods, and go through one or multiple pregnancies have a much higher risk of hair loss than men.
There are other causes of anemia for men and women such as multiple nutritional deficiencies, some prescription drugs and even internal bleeding due to colon cancer. Anyone who is experiencing hair loss, whether it runs in the family or not, should mention it to their doctor and ask to have their ferritin levels checked. If their ferritin levels are low, a supplement could help; in addition to adding more iron-rich foods to your diet.
Related: Increase Energy Naturally with Iron
Do not start taking iron supplements without first consulting your physician. Severe side effects are rare, but include:
- Stomach or intestinal ulcers
- Constipation and or upset stomach
- Intestinal inflammation like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Hemoglobin disease known as thalassemia
- Premature infants
- Increased risk of heart disease in diabetics
Once you have consulted with a doctor, had the appropriate tests, and it is determined that an iron supplement is right for you to prevent further hair loss, doctors generally recommend 50-100 mg of elemental iron (ferrous sulfate) three times per day for up to six months to reverse anemia and build up an adequate store of iron in the body.