Testosterone Tess and the Baldy Sisters

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Women who work in a man's world risk developing a hormonal imbalance that leads to baldness and deeper voices, suggests new research. It's hair-raising stuff. Ann Treneman gets to the root of the problem. There is a new woman in the workplace whom you may have met over the past few weeks. She's been front-page news and could go under the name of Testosterone Tess. She is young, successful and so stressed that her hormones have gone a little wonky. In fact, things are so bad that she has developed something called "testosterone overload". The result is that she has started to look a bit like Demi Moore in GI Jane. But Demi shaved off her hair while our new heroine is just plain losing hers.

The Sunday Times knows that there are "thousands" of Tesses out there who suffer from the syndrome "caused by taking on traditionally male roles in the workplace". The Daily Mail also knows the problem well. "Medical experts say that in adopting more aggressive and competitive working styles women are developing increased sensitivity to testosterone." And this, it says, could lead to bald patches on the head, growing thick hair on their face, neck and bodies, something called "typically male" acne and deeper voices.

There's only one problem. The medical experts who believe this are rather difficult to find. Nor does there appear to be any known syndrome called "testosterone overload". The study quoted in all the stories - conducted by the School of Pharmacy at the University of Portsmouth - turns out to be quite different in some respects. There is a real possibility that Testosterone Tess simply does not exist.

Author Rosalind Miles is not surprised at this. Nor was Professor Lisa Jardine whose immediate response to the whole idea was "rubbish". There is a long and undistinguished history of pseudo-scientific myths that seek to persuade women that they must pay a high price if they insist on working in a man's world. "It's a scare tactic. Remember when they said that Indira Gandhi and Mrs Thatcher had more male hormones?" asks Ms Miles. "It's another `get back in your box' scare."

This is where I would disagree. I know from personal experience that many career women do lose their hair and that an increasing number have sought help from the curious breed of expert called trichologists. Some see them as glorified hairdressers, others see them as knowing more about hair loss than any doctor. The trichologist has a lot more time to listen than a GP - but of course he is being paid pounds 65 for doing so. In my case he proposed a course of treatment aimed at stimulating the hair follicles. Nothing was said about testosterone but a lot was said about nutrition. It turns out that our mothers were right when they told us that our hair would fall out if we didn't eat properly. But it is a long way from needing an iron supplement to inventing a new breed of women who are not in control of their testosterone levels.

The catalyst for the Testosterone Tess story was this survey at the School of Pharmacy. I decided to contact its authors, who were listed as consultant trichologist Dr Hugh Rushton and Dr Michael Norris. Dr Rushton was lecturing on hair loss in Argentina but Dr Norris was available.

The first thing to note is that though both have doctorates neither is a medical doctor. Second, it is not possible to read the report because it is still being written. But Mr Norris was happy to tell me the details of how it was conducted and the results. It made for interesting listening.

"We surveyed 800 women. We found them in shops, supermarkets, banks. We went anywhere they would let us in! It was anonymous. They filled out a form," he said. There was no way of knowing if the woman surveyed were high-flyers or even worked outside the home. There is no way of knowing what, if any, stress they were under. There is no way of knowing if they had, in fact, been forced to take on traditional male roles in the workplace.

The survey asked two main questions. One was whether the parting in their hair had widened in the past five years. The other was whether they lost more hair when taking a shower than five years ago. Mr Norris says that those with wider partings would tend to suffer from a hormone problem that he characterised as an increased sensitivity to testosterone. Those who had lost more hair in the shower would probably be suffering from some sort of nutritional deficiency.

Thirty per cent of women said yes to the shower question. "We were absolutely flabbergasted by the results," he said although he was quick to add that it is hard to tell if this even indicates an increase because there are no previous similar surveys. But, I said, that would mean that women losing their hair were suffering from improper diet, not uncontrollable rushes of testosterone. "Yes, I would say that the major factor in hair loss is nutritional. I would put money on it," he said, adding that the survey did show that 10 per cent of respondents said they had wider partings. "Most of this was in older, post-menopausal women," he said.

So far, so confusing. The survey did not target women that were young, career-oriented or identifiably competitive and aggressive. The results show that poor diet is the main cause of hair loss in women and that most women who suffer hormonal hair loss are far too old to be Testosterone Tess.

So how did Tess come to be born then? Mr Norris says he was somewhat surprised too. "But it is a good story," he said. "And it's not necessarily a false one. But we have no data to back it up. This exists as a theory for now. The stress link can be connected to diet too. Women who work are not likely to eat properly. One thing that worries me is that we are not eating enough red meat because of BSE. That worries me."

Something else is worrying the trichologist Glenn Lyons. He has said that "women's changing role in society is making them more male-like." I asked him to explain further: "I've got a theory that this hormonal hair loss is to do with the role that women are getting involved in. There are having to be more aggressive. They are climbing the professional ladder and it is hard to be recognised."

Mr Lyons agrees that the "argument is very arguable" but insists he has seen a startling increase in the number of young women visiting him with hormonal hair loss. This type of hair loss, he explains, has a genetic link and he says that only 15 to 20 per cent can be helped. Nutritional hair loss, in contrast, can be completely corrected.

I ask Mr Lyons if he believes he might have old-fashioned ideas about women and their role. "No. I've said this for a long time. I'm happily married and my views are based on personal as well as professional observations. I actually listen to what the patients are telling me. I'm aware of how difficult it can be for a conscientious and loving woman. They've got a lot of things to do. I think they are a tremendous sex. Look it's only my theory - doctors might say what a load of nonsense - but I listen to women talk about stress and very often they cry too."

Doctors do, in fact, believe that much of this is rubbish. They say that there is a small group of women who are over-sensitive to testosterone but there is no known link between this condition and working in a man's world. "I don't see why you should acquire this sensitivity because of this stress," says Dr Wayne Perry, a consultant endocrinologist at the Endocrine Centre in Wimpole Street. "It doesn't sound very likely. I'm not saying it's not possible but I think it is highly controversial. I don't know of any medical evidence myself."

The world, however, is more interested in fiction than fact. Mr Norris says he has been inundated with calls from around the world in the past week. "Hair is always good for a story but I've never seen anything like this. They've really latched on to this. People do seem really concerned about women working. Why, I don't know." It's the kind of thing you really want to ask Testosterone Tess - if only you could find her.