One of the most common and emotionally devastating complaints I hear from my patients is thinning hair and hair loss. At Women to Women, we understand that a woman’s head of hair is her crowning glory — and losing too much hair can be a serious and frightening blow to her self-esteem.

Reacting so strongly to the physical state of your hair may seem like vanity — who hasn’t had a bad hair day — but it’s not. Your hair is one of the first areas, along with skin and nails, to manifest signs of hormonal imbalance, poor nutrition and illness. Understanding how hair regenerates and paying attention to any changes in your hair growth and appearance are important parts of taking care of yourself.

The truth is, a certain amount of hair loss is normal (anywhere from 50–100 strands per day), but excessive hair loss and hair thinning indicates that something is not right. The causes of accelerated hair loss are very individual and depend on a complicated set of factors, including hormonal and metabolic imbalances, emotional stress and nutritional deficiencies.

Causes of hair loss in women

A strand of hair is made up of extruded, compacted dead cells. Everything you put into your body eventually comes out in your hair, usually within three to six months. Similar to growth rings in a tree, the strata of cells in a strand of hair paint an unflinching picture of where you’ve been and under what conditions. This is one reason many alternative practitioners look at the quality and quantity of patients’ hair as a valuable diagnostic tool.

But hair itself is only the visible part of the story. Hair grows from living follicles in the skin of the scalp. At the shaft, or root of the hair, all of your major systems are at work, including your circulatory, endocrine and central nervous system. That’s why it hurts when someone pulls your hair!

Every hair follicle has four distinct phases it cycles through on a regular basis: growth or anagen, transition or catagen, resting or telogen, and returning growth or mesanagen (see figure below). A full cycle can last anywhere from two to five years per follicle. Unusual hair loss and thinning occurs when a follicle is stuck in the telogen or resting phase. Bald spots occur when a large group of follicles turn off all in one place. Most of the time this happens slowly, but in some severe cases can happen all at once, causing a clump of hair to fall out.

Why do certain hair follicles break their normal cycle and switch into a resting or “off” position — temporarily or permanently? And why do some women experience thinning hair on their head and darker thicker hair on other parts of their bodies? The reasons are highly individual, but can include any combination of the following:

  • Stress (emotional and physical)

  • Hormonal imbalance, specifically androgen sensitivity

  • Genetics

  • Immune system irregularities

  • Thyroid disorders

  • Nutritional deficiencies (especially iron or vitamin A)

  • Cosmetics (allergies and harsh treatments)

  • Radiation/chemotherapy

  • Dental treatment

  • Blood loss

  • Drugs

  • Disease

  • Surgery

  • Scarring