Hair we grow again - the bald facts

Hair loss, traditionally a problem for men, has become a female nightmare of the Nineties, writes Susanna Cohen
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The Independent Culture
Men have always had to put up with hair loss but now more women are having to face the same fate. No one said that life for women in a post-feminist world was going to be easy, and the increasing incidence of female hair loss is showing how tough the going is.

Dr Hugh Rushton is a pioneer in the treatment of hair loss. In the past, 40 per cent of his patients were women - a figure which has risen to 60 per cent today.

"The majority of scalp hair problems are non life-threatening, and as a consequence the progress of hair research has been relatively slow over the past 50 years", say Rushton. Hair loss can have a serious adverse effect on quality of life but more women are now seeking treatment because word is out that something can be done. Nevertheless, it can still be several months or even years before an individual will seek help.

Rushton's team, which includes an endocrinologist and a dermatologist, are adamant that practically every case of female hair loss can be treated. (These figures do not include scarring alopecia, which is impossible to treat.)

GENETIC HAIR LOSS

Up to 30 per cent of Western women are affected by genetic hair loss - and 72 per cent of these also have a nutritional imbalance. In extreme cases thinning from just behind the frontal hairline to the crown occurs shortly after puberty. For most, changes become evident during the mid- 20s. Effective medical treatment usually involves oral anti-androgen and oestrogen therapy, sometimes in the form of a contraceptive pill. Women requiring such treatment often regrow up to 40 per cent more hair.

Androgens (a group of hormones) that cause hair loss are released in the body as a reaction to stress. However, at the moment there are no statistics as to whether stress is the trigger for this kind of hair loss.

Emma Green, 35, temporary secretary: "At 15 and at high school in South Africa, I was asked if I pulled out my hair. I felt devastated, and it wasn't that bad then. I believe my condition was triggered as a teenager by the strain of moving country twice in the space of 18 months.

"I would pray for an advice line and scour magazines for information. I tried everything - blood tests, the pill, a crew cut. I even tried a course of dog pills that promised glossy coats.

When I moved to London after school my hair became worse, thinning out towards the front. I could see right along the scalp. Hair transplants are not recommended for women and I began to dislike myself terribly.

"I am never comfortable sitting while others are standing. Parties are a risk because someone (usually a man) will be drunk and ask me a "personal question", which will flatten me for ages.

"I would often confide in women in case they were privy to any information and, last year at a drinks party, a girl said she knew of someone who could help. I got her telephone number and hounded her. "Dr Rushton was the first person who had ever said he could get my hair growing again, and in four months it was. It is not yet cured, but I no longer feel strangers' eyes skimming the top of my head."

NUTRITIONAL HAIR LOSS

According to government figures, 90 per cent of women in the UK are iron deficient - and 30 per cent of these will have a hair problem.

The main reason for this is menstruation, but, according to trichologist Andrew Bernie, stress affects the metabolic rate and so prevents the body from absorbing essential nutrients.

Research shows that if the iron deficiency is corrected and if the serum ferritin level is raised, hair growth will start. This can be done through carefully balanced nutritional supplements.

Caroline Palmer, 31, personal assistant: "For years I have been aware of my hair getting thinner. Two years ago it became really obvious. "I panicked because I had no idea if it would ever stop. At the time I was working for Cancer Research, and a colleague suggested I see Dr Rushton. I was found to be lacking in iron.

"After six months of treatment with a specially developed nutritional supplement called Nutrihair, I began to see small hairs growing through. Two years later my hair is the best I ever remember it, and the bounciest since I was a child. I still have blood tests to monitor my iron, and I also have my hair growth regularly checked."

STRESS-RELATED HAIR LOSS

When stress levels become so high that they affect the immune system it can have a profound effect on the body and the hair. Hair loss itself causes immense stress, and then it can become a vicious circle. A traumatic event such as an accident can cause the hair to shed significantly after 12 weeks. A severe illness can lead to dramatic hair loss, but this is rare.

Bonnie Kinnear, 50s, housewife: "Last year my life was quite stressful due to my husband's high-profile career being constantly in the spotlight. At this time I began to develop an inflamed scalp which was wrongly diagnosed as psoriasis, for which I was prescribed steroids. Over the next two months my scalp became worse, and hair began to fall out, leaving bald patches, which was devastating.

Having to look good and be a support to my famous husband was stressful because wherever we went people would look at us. The lowest point came when I discovered a lump in my neck. I was rushed into hospital for a mammogram and full biopsy and, although it turned out only to be a reaction to my scalp condition, the stress exacerbated my hair fall. I had lost at least one third of my hair and, in desperation, visited a high-profile Mayfair trichologist. Without any diagnosis I was prescribed pounds 300 worth of products, and, with stitches in my neck and my scalp on fire, my head was massaged by a girl who proceeded to turn my hair into what is known as "bird's-nest syndrome". This is what happens when the lotions, scaling from the scalp, and the hair that is falling out all fuse into one solid, hard knot. It took four hours to untangle.

My GP convinced me to seek help from Andrew Bernie. I was diagnosed with a stress-triggered condition where the skin cells multiply fast, grow down the hairshaft and bind with sebaceous matter to strangle the hair. I visit Andrew regularly for treatments. I am also trying to manage my stress levels, which is easier now my hair is returning.

A booklet called 'Understanding Hair Loss in Women' can be obtained from Dr Hugh Rushton on 0171-637 4853; 'NutriHair For Women' can be obtained through Lamberts Healthcare Ltd (01892 552121); Andrew Bernie, The Trichology Clinic, is on 0171-794-2949.

Susanna Cohen writes monthly for the beauty section of 'Marie Claire'.

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