Thinning, receding hair is the first sign of hair loss, but there are many underlying factors that can cause you to lose your hair. While DHT tends to be the most common cause of androgenic alopecia, a lack of certain nutrients can also result in forms of hair loss. Iron deficiencies have been found to contribute to cases of hair loss. Read on to learn more about iron deficiency and hair loss.
What is Iron Deficiency
Iron is an essential mineral that plays a variety of vital functions that ensure human growth and development. Most prominently, iron is necessary to the synthesis of hemoglobin, the main protein in red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron is also used in the production of myoglobin, the protein that fuels muscles with oxygen. Iron also plays a role in the synthesis of several hormones and the maintenance of certain connective tissues.1
Iron deficiency is a type of anemia, a condition characterized by a lack of adequate red blood cells. In this case, without enough iron, your body is unable to produce enough hemoglobin or myoglobin.
What Causes Iron Deficiency?
Most people in the United States get enough iron thanks to its easy accessibility in the Western diet. However, iron deficiencies can come as a result of excess blood loss, as well as any disorders that may inhibit your ability to properly absorb or metabolize iron in your small intestine.
One of the more common causes of iron deficiency is pregnancy. A pregnant woman’s iron stores have to not only support an increased volume of blood, but also provide the proteins necessary to growing the muscles and connective tissues in a developing fetus. This is why pregnant women are often required to take an iron supplement.2
Can Iron Deficiency Cause Hair Loss?
In terms of symptoms, iron deficiency hair loss often appears to be the same as androgenic alopecia, or male and female pattern baldness. In a Korean study, 210 patients with male and female pattern baldness were compared against 210 control subjects. All patients went through screenings for iron, serum ferritin, and total iron binding capacity. Results showed that all patients with pattern baldness showed lower serum ferritin levels than control subjects. However, this difference was more pronounced in women, particularly premenopausal women with pattern baldness. This suggests a link between iron deficiency and hair loss.3
Doctors and researchers still are not sure exactly why or how low iron levels could contribute to hair loss. Many experts understand that iron is an important component in ribonucleotide reductase, an enzyme that contributes to cell growth, DNA, and RNA.4
It’s also important to remember iron’s role in hemoglobin. Without enough iron, your body is unable to produce hemoglobin. Without hemoglobin, your body is unable to transport oxygen to your cells, including those that make up your hair follicles. This can shorten the growth phase of your hair cycle while lengthening the rest phase, resulting in hair loss resembling male or female pattern baldness.5
How to Tell if You have an Iron Deficiency
In its initial stages, iron deficiency can be hard to notice as the symptoms are incredibly mild. The most prominent symptom of iron deficiency anemia is a pervasive feeling of fatigue and physical tiredness. As iron deficiency progresses, you may experience other signs and symptoms aside from hair loss, including:
- Pale skin
- Chest pains
- Fast, irregular heartbeat or shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Headaches, dizziness, or general lightheadedness
- Inflammation in the tongue
- Brittle nails
- Generally poor appetite (more common in infants and children)
- Cravings for non-foods and non-nutritive substances, including dirt, starch, and ice2
Iron Deficiency Prevention
The good news is that iron deficiency is generally easy to prevent. Here are some steps to prevent iron deficiency anemia.
Iron deficiency prevention starts with your diet. The daily recommended amount of iron that you require depends on your age, gender, and general health, but the average adult man need about 8 milligrams of iron per day, while the average adult woman needs about 18 milligrams of iron per day. Vegetarians, vegans, and others who have a diet that is low in poultry, seafood, or meat have to almost double their iron intake. This is because the human body cannot absorb nonheme iron, which is the iron from plant-based food, as well as it can absorb the heme iron found in animal products.1
Some foods that are rich in iron include:
- Red meat, pork, poultry, and seafood
- Breads and breakfast cereals fortified with iron
- Lentils, white beans, kidney beans, peas
- Spinach and other dark, leafy greens
- Raisins, apricots, and other dried fruits
- Nuts and legumes1, 2
Vitamin C can also help with iron deficiency prevention. Most people reach for vitamin C when they feel a cold or flu coming on, and while it may help to support immune functions, vitamin C plays a vital role in the absorption of iron. Eating foods rich in vitamin C increases the bioavailability of dietary iron. The mechanisms of action are twofold.
Consuming vitamin C actively prevents the formation of iron compounds that are insoluble or otherwise not absorbable by your cells. Vitamin C also reduces the conversion of ferric to ferrous iron, which may contribute to the uptake of iron into the cells of the intestinal mucosa.6 This effect is even more pronounced with non-heme iron and may even reverse the inhibiting effects of tea, calcium, and phosphate.7 Some studies also suggest that vitamin C may support hair growth on its own as well.8
Vitamin C is most commonly found in oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruits and citrus juices, but you can also find vitamin C in:
- Leafy greens
If you are not getting sufficient iron from your diet, you may want to consider taking an iron supplement, especially if you are pregnant. Pregnant women require at least 27 milligrams of iron per day, which should start generally around your first prenatal visit. Women who are breastfeeding require at least 9 milligrams of iron every day.9 Talk to your doctor if you do not think you are getting enough iron from your daily diet and believe supplementation may help with iron deficiency prevention.
Iron deficiency prevention also depends on avoiding some foods. Certain foods can actually inhibit the absorption of iron, which can exacerbate symptoms of iron deficiency and prevent you from maintaining adequate iron levels even with a balanced diet. The main food components that can inhibit iron absorption include polyphenols and phytates, commonly found in black tea and coffee, as well as calcium.10 However, many of these components can actually present benefits to your health, and some, like calcium, are essential to your maintaining your general health and well being. If you can’t cut coffee or tea, consider drinking your caffeinated beverage between meals instead of with meals. If you are experiencing any signs of iron deficiency, talk with your doctor to determine the best way to balance your calcium intake.
Iron for Hair Growth
The good news is that iron deficiency hair loss is generally not permanent. This means that regrowing your hair should be easy once you regain adequate iron levels. If your iron deficiency is a result of dietary issues, you can work with your doctor to find ways to better incorporate iron into your daily diet. If there is an underlying issue that prevents the proper absorption or metabolism of iron, your doctor will likely recommend a treatment plan before tackling your hair loss.
As your body adjusts to natural iron levels, your doctor may also recommend the use of hair growth solutions. Minoxidil is one of the most common hair growth prescriptions, available in both oral and topical forms. Minoxidil is a peripheral vasodilator, meaning it works by enlarging blood vessels and supporting greater blood flow to the scalp and hair follicles to support hair growth.11 Your doctor may also prescribe ketoconazole, which is normally used as an anti-fungal, but some research suggests that it may help with hair regrowth.12 Along with these prescription medications, it may be a good idea to use essential oils to support your hair growth, including argan and jojoba oils.
Finasteride, saw palmetto, and other DHT blockers may not be as effective in this case because iron deficiency hair loss is not tied to hormonal imbalances.
Consult your doctor if you believe your hair loss may be caused by an iron deficiency or are exhibiting any iron deficiency anemia symptoms. Remember to be patient. It may still take some time to regrow your hair even after changing your diet to maintain healthy iron levels.
Next article: How to Identify Your Type of Hair Loss
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