Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pumping Iron: Can Low Iron Levels Cause Hair Loss?

Most assume that their ever-thinning hair is a result of genetics and there is little to do to stop it. While that's somewhat true, researchers have found that some cases of hair loss may be tied to diet, not DNA.

In a review of previous work, doctors from the Cleveland Clinic have found that low iron levels in the body may be linked to hair loss in both men and women. While there is no hard evidence to suggest that iron supplements would help to regrow hair, some experts do see iron as a potential supplement to other forms of hair-loss treatment.

"We believe that treatment for hair loss is enhanced when iron deficiency…is treated," the study authors wrote in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Most associate iron deficiency with anemia, an inability of the blood to carry oxygen due to low levels of hemoglobin. In fact, iron deficiency anemia commonly causes the symptom of large amounts of hair loss. But iron deficiency can also occur without showing any symptoms. In fact, iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, often going unnoticed by both patients and their doctors.

In this review, however, Dr. Leonid Trost and colleagues found that iron deficiency may be at least somewhat linked to one very noticeable symptom—hair loss. But it isn't clear if low iron levels cause hair loss or if it just makes hair loss worse.

"Hair loss is not just caused by one thing," said Trost, "But milder forms of iron deficiency are linked to some types of hair loss."

While many doctors will check hemoglobin levels to test for anemia, not all will go to the next step of checking for iron deficiency without anemia. To check for this, Trost recommends that patients who may be iron deficient be screened for ferritin, a direct measure of the amount of iron in the body. These hair loss patients include pre-menopausal women, women who just gave birth and patients who recently had surgery, all of whom may have low iron levels as a result of blood loss. Additionally, vegetarians and recent crash dieters should also be tested as they may not eat enough iron in their diet.

If iron levels are low, Trost recommends that patients be taught which foods contain high levels of iron, like red meats, spinach and raisins. Iron supplements are also helpful, however, patients who take these pills need to be monitored closely by a doctor. Too much iron can be very dangerous, affecting the heart and pancreas, among other organs.

In many cases, the additional iron helps the body re-grow the hair. "For some people, it makes a profound difference," said Trost, who gives the example of a pre-menopausal woman who is losing her hair mostly because of iron deficiency.

However, Trost cautions that a 60-year-old man with male-pattern baldness may not see such astounding results with iron alone. For these patients, iron supplementation needs to be part of a more comprehensive treatment for the hair loss.