Everything You Need to Know About Alopecia

white woman holding large amount of falling hair

A condition called “alopecia” was unexpectedly brought into the spotlight during the 94th Academy Awards ceremony. As you probably heard, Will Smith ran onstage and slapped host Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s, shaved head. Recently Jada has been outspoken about the reason for her baldness – an autoimmune condition called alopecia. While we can appreciate Will defending his wife, his actions have caused a lot of controversy and actually overshadowed the awards ceremony. 

Let’s put the drama at the Oscars aside and explore this fairly common medical condition and what it means for someone like Jada who is living with it and experiencing significant and sometimes permanent hair loss.

What is Alopecia?

young white woman with light brown hair shows balding on back of head

Alopecia (or alopecia areata) is an autoimmune disease that causes large amounts of hair loss, sometimes affecting the entire scalp. According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, around 6.8 million people in America and 147 million people worldwide will develop alopecia at some point in their lives. Alopecia happens when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks your hair follicles. This attack slows down hair production, causing an eventual loss of hair growth. It can happen to small patches of hair (sometimes the size of a quarter), or it could be total hair loss over an entire area (called alopecia totalis). 

What Causes Alopecia?

Being that alopecia is an autoimmune disorder, it’s the unnecessary attack on your hair follicles from your white blood cells. It’s unknown why or when your immune system decides to attack your hair follicles.

Alopecia can cause hair loss anywhere on the body, including beards in men, but it most commonly affects scalp hair. The good news, though, is the hair follicles remain alive and can resume growth once your immune system gets itself in check.

Who Gets Alopecia?

Alopecia can happen to anyone – men, women, adults, and children. While it can be a hereditary disease, there’s no way of predicting who may get it, but it’s more likely to start by age 30. Your chances of developing alopecia are higher if you have other autoimmune diseases such as lupus, eczema, diabetes, or thyroid disease.

What Else Causes Hair Loss?

Close-up Of African Shocked Woman Suffering From Hair Loss Problem

Just because you’re experiencing hair loss doesn’t mean it’s alopecia. Hair loss can come from a lot of things including:

  • Stress
    • This is normally a temporary hair loss
  • Hormonal changes
    • Pregnancy often causes thinning or loss of hair
    • Thyroid issues can cause hair loss
  • Certain medications
    • Chemotherapy and methotrexate can cause hair loss
  • Hairstyles
    • Tight braiding or pulling while blow-drying your hair can cause traction alopecia, which is temporary
  • Genetics
    • This is especially true for male-pattern baldness
  • Poor nutrition
    • A diet lacking in nutrients such as iron can cause hair falling

Professional Treatments for Alopecia

Once your immune system stops attacking your hair follicles, it may be possible to see new hair growth. Since there is no permanent cure for alopecia, know that you could experience alopecia again in your life, even if you are getting new hair growth after treatment.

Common professional treatments for alopecia include:

  • Steroids
    • Injections like corticosteroid can help reduce your overactive immune system.
  • Immunosuppressant drugs
    • The popular rheumatoid arthritis drug Xeljanz has been shown to suppress your immune system and even regrow hair.
  • Finasteride
    • A prescription medication that blocks DHT, a hormone that causes male pattern baldness.

Vitamins, Minerals Can Help Hair Loss

Making sure your body is fueled with the nutrients it needs for hair growth is one of the easiest actions you can take against hair loss. A study observing vitamins’ effect on hair loss shows these deficiencies can cause hair loss:

  • Vitamin B
    • Riboflavin, biotin, folate, and vitamin B12 deficiencies can cause hair loss.
  • Vitamin D
    • A low Vitamin D level is common in many autoimmune diseases. Having a healthy Vitamin D level could stop hair loss.
  • Vitamin E
    • Vitamin E can combat oxidative stress, and patients with alopecia were shown to have low Vitamin E levels.
  • Iron
    • The study shows iron is a common deficiency in women with hair loss.
  • Selenium
    • This is a trace element that helps synthesize various proteins, and patients on chemotherapy who also took selenium saw less hair loss than those not taking selenium therapy.
  • Zinc
    • The jury is out on this, according to the study, since some hair loss patients saw no improvement, while some did.

However, the study shows that taking too much Vitamin A can actually cause hair loss.

Remember, Treatment is Available

If you are noticing excessive hair loss, it’s always best to connect with a hair loss specialist. But keep in mind that if you have alopecia, it’s not always permanent. Keeping a healthy diet, lowering stress, and checking your blood work levels may all lead to less hair loss.

By Hannah Kohut

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