A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Hair health: 5 things your locks are telling you

Woman combing her hair

If you’ve noticed changes in your hair health, it may be trying to tell you something about your overall health. Watch for brittle hair and shedding.

If you’ve noticed your hair is thinning, or that a growing amount of hair is piling up in your shower drain, your hair might be trying to send you a message about your health.

Research shows that changes in your hair health — be it look, texture, or thickness — can offer signs of underlying health conditions, like thyroid disease. They should not be taken lightly.

Dr. Diane Meyer, a Marshfield Clinic dermatologist, covers five things your hair may be saying about your health, and what you should do about them. Next time you look in the mirror, look for these hair symptoms.

Brittle hair

“When I see people with brittle hair, it may be related to nutritional deficiencies or thyroid disease and hormones you should discuss with a physician,” she said.

Most commonly, hair can also be made brittle by hair styling practices including harsh hair care products or chemical and heat treatments, like curling irons and blow-drying. Sometimes cutting back on chemical and heat treatments will help your hair significantly.

Thinning hair and thyroid disease

Both hypothyroidism (not enough thyroid hormones) and hyperthyroidism (too many thyroid hormones) can cause hair loss.

In hypothyroidism, hair is often dry, brittle and thinning, and can be associated with fatigue, cold sensitivity, weight gain, brittle nails and dry, rough, itchy skin.

In hyperthyroidism, hair is often fine, brittle and thinning, and can be associated with weight loss (despite increased appetite), increased sweating and heat sensitivity, nervousness, rapid heart weight and tremor.

Both can be diagnosed with thyroid blood tests.

Hair shedding and thinning

If you’re suddenly noticing more hair in your hairbrush or on your shower floor, this could indicate a medical problem that warrants blood testing.

In addition to thyroid blood testing, your doctor may want to check iron and ferritin levels and vitamin D or hormone levels.

It is normal to shed between 50 to 100 hairs per day. More is excessive and can be seen in people who have experienced one of these stressors:

  • Significant weight loss
  • Delivery of a baby
  • High stress level
  • A high fever
  • Surgery
  • Stopped taking birth control pills
  • Started a new medication

Hair thinning also can be hereditary as we age, and it can be caused by hairstyles that pull on the hair.

“When evaluating hair loss, I also look for autoimmune diseases like lupus erythematosus, which can affect many parts of the body, and alopecia areata, which usually appears in patches,” Dr. Meyer said.

Yellow flakes and dandruff

Yellow or white flakes in your hair, on your shoulders and even in your eyebrows can be dandruff.

Over-the-counter or prescription shampoos and leave-on products like topical lotions or solutions can help manage the condition. Dandruff, caused by yeast on the skin, which results in inflammation, is usually worse in winter.

Sometimes, scalp scaling and itching also can be caused by a fungal infection, psoriasis or eczema.

Gray hair

Research shows gray hair is almost purely genetic, with rare exceptions for medications and nutritional deficiencies.

Some claim stress plays a role but research does not support this. Other than trying hair dyes or colors, no “magic tonics” exists to stop hair from turning gray.

“The take-away is that your hair says a lot about your health,” Meyer said. “Don’t overlook the importance of healthy hair. It can be much more than just aesthetically pleasing.”

If you experience significant changes in your hair health, please consider talking to your physician.

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