Did you know that spotting what’s going on with your body could be as simple as paying attention to your hair? Here are nine need-to-know health secrets it can explain.
Redheads are half as likely to go to the dentist as those with other hair colours. Why? Because they can carry a version of a gene that means they don’t respond as well to injected dental painkillers as other folk. As such they may have experienced past painful procedures that now put them off going to the dentist, say researchers at the US’s University of Louisville. If that sounds like you, ask your dentist about other potential types of painkiller.
If your hair starts to look thinner around the temples, crown or middle parting, it can be a sign of a hormonal imbalance. “Conditions that cause an elevation of the normally weak male hormones in the female body often show up as this type of thinning,” says Anthony Pearce, a NSW trichologist. In younger women the most common cause of this is polycystic ovary syndrome; in older women a more common cause is the fluctuating hormones of menopause. Your doctor can order blood tests to check your hormone levels and offer appropriate treatment.
Low levels of protein, not enough fat in your diet, or eating too few kilojoules to get all the nutrients you need are all common causes of dull, dry and thinning hair, says Brisbane trichologist Carolyn Evans. “If your diet is low in nutrients the body will concentrate on using these to sustain your vital organs rather than your hair. This means your hair will still grow, just not well,” she explains. A healthy diet makeover can be all it takes to create shinier, thicker hair in these cases. For a more in-depth analysis, book a test called hair tissue mineral analysis. This tests a sample of the hair and specifically shows what nutrients you’re lacking – or if you have too high levels of some toxic minerals in your system. “High levels of lead, arsenic, mercury or aluminium can be another cause of dry hair,” says David Salinger from the International Association of Trichologists.
If you’ve got a complicated hairstyle, or hair that’s chemically processed and prone to damage from over-washing, you may be more likely to skip your workout than a woman with a wash-and-go style, found dermatologist Amy McMichael at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in the US. While changing your style is one solution, it’s a bit drastic, so Professor McMichael suggests the following: “Lighter exercise right after having the hair styled, then more vigorous workouts the closer it comes to washing day.”
Generally, the lighter your hair, the lighter your skin and so the more vigilant you need to be with your sun protection, but redheads need to be extra cautious. The form of the gene that gives red hair its colour also causes a specific reaction in the skin when UV rays hit it that increases risk of tumour formation.
“Hypothyroidism (where the thyroid performs more slowly than it should) can show up as very dry hair and/or diffuse hair loss from the entire scalp,” says Salinger. “Another telltale hair-based sign of this problem is that the outer third of the eyebrows starts to thin.” If your hair is thinning but gets oily rather than dry, hyperthyroidism (where the thyroid speeds up) can be a cause. The good news is any hair loss will reverse if you start medication to correct the problem. Again, a blood test is the best way to get a firm diagnosis.
Stress clearly shows up in the hair. The worst-case scenario is that major stressors like bereavement can actually trigger it to fall out. “But most of the time this isn’t what people under stress experience. Instead, they complain that their hair just doesn’t behave as normal. It might become thinner, look limp or hair that was curly might go frizzy,” says Evans. “This isn’t caused by the stress itself, but people who are chronically busy tend not to eat, sleep or generally look after themselves that well, which causes the hair to suffer.” Start slowing down, take better care of yourself and things will change.
Some drugs can trigger hair to fall out. Salinger tells us it can happen with forms of the Pill containing certain progesterones called levonorgestrel and norethistrone which mimic male sex hormones. This can trigger hair loss from the crown and temples in genetically prone women. Other medicines strongly linked to hair loss are antidepressants, including tricyclics and SSRIs. These can force more of the hair than normal into the resting phase from which it normally sheds and this increase can cause thinning across the scalp. Beta-blockers and warfarin may also cause this type of general hair loss. If you’ve recently started taking a drug and have noticed changes in your hair, speak to your GP to see if the two might be linked.
Insulin resistance is a condition where your cells stop listening to the signals from the blood-sugar-balancing hormone insulin. When this happens you start to produce more and more insulin to try and get results – and this is a common trigger for type 2 diabetes. “One outward sign of insulin resistance can be hair loss,” says Pearce. “High levels of insulin interfere with the production of oestrogen in the body and this can cause a hormonal imbalance that causes hair to be lost.”
If you are suffering hair thinning across your scalp and have risk factors for diabetes like carrying fat around your middle, or notice dark, soft, velvety patches of skin around your neck or armpits, ask your doctor to check your blood sugar levels.
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