Monday, October 18, 2010

What Your Hair Is Telling You About Your Health

By Sally Wadyka for MSN Health & Fitness
 
What Your Hair Says About Your Health // White hair (© Silverstock/Getty Images)A healthy head of hair is easy to spot. It's full, shiny and lustrous with no flakes, frizzies or other visible damage. But what about when your crowning glory isn't quite so glorious? In some cases, it might be a harbinger of health problems—or it could simply mean that you're spending too much time with the blow dryer.
 
White overnight?
We've all heard horror stories of someone who, in the aftermath of some terribly traumatic event, woke up to find their formerly brown, red or blond hair turned shockingly white. Well, don't worry about it happening to you, because, according to Dr. Arielle Kauvar, a New York dermatologist, it simply can't happen. "The only way for hair to turn gray is a gradual decline in melanin production at the root," says Kauvar. "There is no biological event that can remove pigment directly from the hair shaft." However, a physical or emotional trauma can cause a change in the hair. The illness or stress sends actively growing hair into a resting phase, and a couple of months later, all those strands in the resting phase may fall out. So, if the dark hairs fall out and the already white ones remain, the result is hair that looks suddenly grayer. 
 
What Your Hair Says About Your Health // Gray hair (© Richard Drury/Getty Images)Going gray
Some people start finding those wiry gray strands as early as their 20s, while others hold onto their natural color well into their 40s. The cause is unrelated to how healthy—or unhealthy—you are. As with so many things, it turns out you can blame (or thank) your parents for the rate at which your hair turns gray. "It's mostly genetic," Kauvar says, "so if your parents grayed early, it is likely you will too." The hair that's already on your head doesn't lose pigment. But as you age, there is a decrease in melanin production in the hair bulb (or root). So when new strands start to grow, they may come in with less—or no—pigment, thanks to that decrease in melanin. The change happens most quickly in Caucasians, 50 percent of whom will be at least 50 percent gray by age 50. 
 
What Your Hair Says About Your Health // Brush with hair (© Henry Horenstein/Getty Images) Serious sheddingSeeing a swarm of strands in the shower drain every morning isn't necessarily a cause for alarm—or a signal that anything is wrong with you. It's totally normal to lose about 100 strands of hair every day. And even if you think you’re losing more than that, remember that your head carries at least 100,000 hair follicles, so it's possible to collect a handful or two out of the bath or hairbrush without it visibly changing the appearance of your mane. And since those 100,000 or so follicles have different growth phases, even as several strands fall out, dozens of new ones are just on their way in to replace them. So unless you're starting to notice visible thinning of your hair or bald spots on your scalp, chances are the loss is nothing more than natural, everyday shedding.
 
What Your Hair Says About Your Health // Thinning hair due to malnutrition and thyroid disease (© Dr. P. Marazzi/Photo Researchers, Inc.) Visibly thinning
If you have iron or protein deficiency—common with the caloric deprivation of anyone suffering from an eating disorder—it is not unusual to experience severe hair loss. That's because the malnutrition forces the body to conserve protein (the building block of all the body's cells, including the hair) by shutting down hair growth. And since more hair may also be shed—without being replaced—the result can be a noticeable thinning over several months. Thyroid disease (both an overactive thyroid and an underactive one) can also show up as increased hair loss. Once the disease is controlled, hair growth can usually be restored. 

What Your Hair Says About Your Health // Smooth bald patches on the head or body (alopecia) (© Rosseforp - Voller Ernst Gbr/Photolibrary)Going baldReally losing your hair can be a sign that you've inherited a tendency for baldness, or it could indicate a bigger health issue. Heredity baldness, medically known as androgenetic alopecia, affects up to one third of men. The hair loss—which typically begins at the temples or crown—is permanent. Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease which can cause anything from smooth bald patches to the loss of all hair on both the head and body. The cause of the disease isn’t known, although some doctors feel there is a genetic link. With this type of alopecia, hair normally grows back. 
 
What Your Hair Says About Your Health // Dandruff (© Judith Haeusler/Getty Images )The flaky stuff
Dandruff is one of hair's most misunderstood maladies. People often assume that those flakes must mean that the scalp is too dry and that, like skin that's flaking, it must obviously need more moisture to make it look better. But while some people may indeed suffer from a dry scalp, true dandruff is not a matter of dryness. "Dandruff is the common name for seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory condition of the scalp that causes redness and flaking in the areas of the skin that are rich in oil glands," Kauvar explains. Other skin conditions—such as psoriasis and eczema—can also cause a similar condition in which the scalp gets red, itchy and produces flakes of dandruff. In any case, the best cure is to seek out a medicated (not necessarily moisturizing) shampoo or scalp treatment.
 
What Your Hair Says About Your Health // Dry, frizzy hair (© C. Lyttle/zefa/Corbis)Dull, dry, brittle, and breaking
Hair that looks frazzled, frizzy and fried most likely is just that. We can do tremendous damage by using chemical dyes and permanents, as well as by simply aiming the blow dryer at our head every morning. Like being in the sun, all of these self-inflicted abuses destroy the cuticle and leave hair wide open to damage. Pulling hair into tight braids or ponytails can increase that stress and lead to breakage—or even bald spots. But in addition to being a cue that you need to treat you hair more carefully, unhealthy strands can also be an indicator of an unhealthy diet. Without adequate protein, growing hair strands won't become as strong and resilient as they should be. And essential fatty acids (found in fish oil supplements, wild salmon, and flax seeds) may also play a role in keeping strands strong, shiny and healthy. If your diet is lacking in them, try increasing your consumption and see if your hair eats it up! Of course, what you eat can only impact hair that is just starting to grow, so it will be several months before any improvements are evident.
 
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer who writes regularly for Shape, Runner’s World, Real Simple and The New York Times.
 
 
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