Menopausal Hair loss – Natural Approaches That Can Help
By Belle McCaleb (originally published InnerSelf Magazine)
One of the most distressing side effects of the menopausal and post menopausal years for many women is hair loss. It is common – up to 40% of women will experience this to one degree or another in menopause or post-menopause. The hair loss pattern is referred to as the “male type” as it emulates balding in men and it is due to the same mechanism – relative excess of the metabolically active form of testosterone – dihydrotestosterone or DHT. This hormone affects the hair follicle growth pattern leading to fewer hairs in the “growth” or “maintenance” phase. Over time this leads to noticeable thinning – usually on the crown of the head. In menopausal women it is the relative lack of estrogen that results in a relative excess of the male type hormones – androgens – including testosterone.
Luckily reversing hair loss is possible using natural means. The main approach is to reduce the relative excess of androgens by blocking the conversion of the testosterone to the DHT form, raising the level of phytoestrogens in the body and increasing the conversion of testosterone to estrogen via a process called aromatisation.
Testosterone is converted to the more active DHT form via an enzyme called 5 alpha reductase. Herbal medicines that block this enzyme and so reduce DHT include Saw Palmetto, Reishi mushroom and Green Tea. Spearmint also lowers free testosterone although the mechanism is not clear. It is also important not to overdo natural aromatase inhibitors such as coffee, red wine, and cacao (chocolate).
Increasing the intake of dietary phytoestrogens is recommended unless there are contraindications (such as estrogen receptor positive cancer). Strong dietary phytoestrogens include many culinary herbs such as parsley and also soy products, although I would only recommend the use of tofu or tempeh as opposed to soy isolates found in soy milks etc. Phytoestrogenic herbs abound and include Shatavari, Red Clover, Sage and many others. We can also increase estrogen and decrease testosterone by encouraging aromasation. The main herbs used for this are White Paony and Licorice.
As nutritional deficiencies can also lead to hair loss it is important to rule these out and not a bad idea to supplement Vitamins B, A, D, K2 and C as well as minerals including calcium, magnesium and zinc. Omega EFA found in fish oil can be useful as well as Alpha EFA found in the Sea Buckthorn plant. The trace mineral silica is important for hair health and often supplemented. Herbs high in silica include Horsetail, Nettle and Agrimony. Zeaxanthin, a carotinoid, has also been purported to help the situation.
It is also very important to rule out iron deficiency and low thyroid function as they both can lead to hair loss. Checking mineral levels and heavy metals is also highly recommended via Hair Mineral Analysis. Zinc and copper levels in particular should be assessed (via Hair Mineral Analysis and blood tests) as copper opposes zinc and high copper can therefore contribute to hair loss. General health needs to be assessed and maximised as ill health can certainly contribute to the problem on many levels.
And last but by far not least stress levels must be assessed and addressed if stress is high, chronic or acute. High stress leads to an increase in adrenal androgens. It is not uncommon for hair loss to follow a period of intense and/or prolonged stress. Herbal medicines for adrenal support include Rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, Withania, Rehmania and Panax ginseng. Lifestyle measures for stress management are equally important including exercise, yoga, meditation and counselling.
Topical application of herbs as essential oils added to shampoos and conditioners may help. Rosemary is classically the herb used in this way. It is important to avoid harsh, chemical laden shampoo and conditioner – look for organic products. Same goes for hair colouring – go with Henna or herbal products with NO fixatives – pure herbal only. I have found some great ones that actually turn hair dark brown – blonde is not so easy.
There is also a hair loss condition known as traction alopecia. This is due to tightly pulling the hair into buns, plaits or whatever. Let your hair hang as freely as possible.
A note of caution: if considering taking herbal medicine please consult a qualified herbalist as there certainly are cautions and contraindications with most medicines, including herbal ones!
Grant P, Ramasamy S, An update on plant derived anti-androgens, Int J Endocrinol Metab, 2012; 10 (2): 497-5
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