Alopecia is a term used to describe hair loss, usually when referring to small, rapidly developing circular patches of hair loss from the scalp, beard or body (alopecia areata). It sometimes also refers to the related conditions alopecia totalis (complete loss of scalp hair) and alopecia universalis (the loss of all hair from the body, including the scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows and pubic hair).
What are the symptoms of alopecia?
Alopecia areata involves the rapid and complete loss of hair in one or more patches roughly the size and shape of a coin (or less commonly, in a wave-like pattern referred to as ophiasis). It occurs in people of any age, race or gender, and is estimated to affect around 2% of people at some point in their lives, many of whom will experience more than one episode of the condition. The skin in the bald patches appears normal, but is sometimes reddened and may appear recessed in comparison to the surrounding unaffected skin. When viewed under magnification, small round yellow dots may be visible in areas of active hair loss. The hairs at the edges of patches of alopecia tend to be short and broken, and are known as exclamation mark hairs because they are thinnest at the end closest to the scalp. Aside from the hair loss, alopecia areata doesn’t typically cause any symptoms, but sometimes a tingling sensation is experienced in the scalp, and around 10% of people also experience nail damage, which may manifest as depressed lines or dimples (pits) in the nail. The hair follicle isn’t permanently damaged, and retains the ability to grow hair, and hair growth usually returns without any intervention. However, some people with alopecia areata go on to develop the more serious conditions alopecia totalis (the loss of all hair from the scalp) or alopecia universalis (the complete loss of hair from the body). Up to 80% of people with mild cases of alopecia areata experience regrowth within 12 months (but usually no sooner than three months), but some people are affected for much longer periods of time, and complete recovery is less likely for those who are severely affected. Regrowth tends to start with the appearance of fine, white hairs at the centre of a bald patch. Over time, the hair usually becomes thicker and pigmented again, but may be a different colour than it was previously, and may also have changed in texture (for example becoming curlier than it was before). For many people – especially children and teenagers – the most significant aspects of alopecia are the emotional and social consequences of the condition. Affected people frequently report feeling self-conscious, angry, rejected and embarrassed, and as a result may become shy, cautious, aggressive or defensive. They may also experience issues at school, work or in their personal lives. Alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition, and those affected are also predisposed to other immune problems, including some autoimmune diseases (including thyroid disease) and atopic allergies such as dermatitis and hayfever.
What causes alopecia?
The causes of alopecia areata are complex and not yet completely understood, however it is an inflammatory autoimmune condition that is at least partially genetic. Up to a third of those affected by alopecia areata have a close relative who has also experienced it. In genetically-susceptible people, alopecia areata occurs because the immune system turns against hair follicles that are in the anagen (growth) phase of the hair growth cycle. These cells are usually protected from attack by the immune system, but for some reason cease to be treated as protected tissues, and consequently cease functioning, causing the hair in the affected region to be rapidly shed. In about a quarter of cases of alopecia areata, stressful events such as family or work problems can be identified as either a trigger or aggravating factor in the condition’s progression. Some researchers believe that infection with viruses such as Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus may also play a role in the development of alopecia areata by inducing changes in immune function. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the Kidney and Liver organ-meridians are considered responsible for the health of the hair and scalp, with Kidney Essence (also known as Jing) required for growth, and Liver Blood responsible for nourishing the scalp and hair follicles. From this perspective, alopecia areata may be a consequence of deficiency of either Jing or Liver Blood.
Natural therapies for alopecia
Fallopia may help manage alopecia
In Chinese herbal medicine, the herb Fallopia has traditionally been used to promote hair growth and tonify the Liver, Kidney and Blood. It may aid in the management of alopecia, and is believed to work by increasing the percentage of healthy hair follicles that are in the growing (anagen) phase of the hair life cycle, and reactivating those in the resting (telogen) phase. Fallopia is suitable for men, women and children, and is as the primary ingredient in our proprietary extract Phytofol®, which is exclusive to Fusion® Health. It is usually taken in combination with other Chinese herbs.
Chinese herbs may revitalise hair follicles
Fallopia is often taken in combination with other traditional Chinese herbs that support the Liver and Kidney organ-meridians and invigorate the Blood and circulation to the scalp and hair follicles, including Dong Quai, Chinese Licorice, Rehmannia, White Peony and Ligusticum. Together these herbs may help to revitalise the hair follicles and promote healthy hair growth.
Zinc supports healthy hair
Amongst its many other functions in the body, zinc plays an important role in immune system function and is required for many enzymatic reactions, including a number that affect the function of the hair follicle. It supports healthy hair, promoting growth and contributing to its strength, volume and shine, and is often taken in combination with other nutrients required for the growth and condition of the hair.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations for alopecia
- If you’re experiencing alopecia, wearing a hat, scarf, wig or hair extension may help you feel less self-conscious; false eyelashes, eyebrow pencils and eyebrow tattoos may also be beneficial if your lashes and brows are affected. However, many people ultimately decide to accept and embrace their condition and proudly flaunt their bald scalp – it’s entirely up to you, so go with whatever makes you most comfortable
- Protect exposed areas of your scalp from sunburn by wearing a hat or sunscreen
- If your eyelashes are affected by alopecia, wear glasses to protect your eyes from dust and grit, especially on windy days
- Counselling may help you come to terms with your alopecia, and give you a safe space to express your fears and develop self-acceptance - this may be particularly important for children, who sometimes experience behavioural changes and difficulties at school as a consequence of their alopecia
- Hypnotherapy may enhance your ability to cope with alopecia
- Be gentle with your remaining hair. Avoid pulling or twisting your hair, wearing it in tight hair styles, and the use of hair dryers, hair straighteners, dyes and other harsh chemicals.
When should you see your doctor or other health professional about alopecia?
- Any sudden or unusual hair loss should be investigated by your healthcare professional in order to rule out underlying disease or problems with your prescribed medicines
- Fallopia and the other Chinese herbs mentioned above are suitable for men, women and children, but consult your healthcare professional before use if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.