Your hair is one of the first things people notice about you, so you want to keep it looking full and healthy for as long as you can. In some families, hair loss can seem almost inevitable, especially for men. Genetics do play a big role in how thick your hair remains as you age, but more than half of men over 40 are affected by “moderate to extensive” premature hair loss and many women are, too, according to a recent study by dermatologists. The surprising part is that there may be more than genetics at play. The choices you make in your daily life can reduce or increase the risk of your hair thinning while you’re still young.
Before we go any further, if you experience sudden hair loss, such as clumps of hair on your pillow in the morning or in the shower drain, you may be suffering from a serious underlying medical condition. Be sure to check it out with an experienced health-care provider. If you notice your hair is simply thinning or just want to do all you can to maintain a healthy head of hair, pay attention to these five factors:
Chronic stress is damaging to our health in a wide range of ways. You may not realize that stress also can cause your hair to fall out. In fact, stress is a trigger for two different conditions that affect your hair. “Telogen effluvium” is the dermatology term for when your hair follicles stop growing and go into an extended resting phase because stress is demanding your body’s resources. With “alopecia areata,” stress activates your body's immune system to attack cells supporting your hair follicles, so they cannot stay healthy and eventually break off.
You already know that smoking is destructive to your health. It even has an impact on your hair. “There is some evidence to support a relation between amount of smoking and severity of baldness and also the age of onset hair loss,” says a report in the International Journal of Trichology (the study of hair and scalp). That is, the more you smoke, the earlier you may begin losing your hair and the more severe your hair loss may be. The researchers theorize that smoking may lead to hair loss because it constricts your blood vessels, reducing the amount of nutrients your hair follicles get. Smoking, they add, may also impact your body’s hormones and speed up the aging process.
3. Lack of sleep
Getting regular rest each day is not just good for your mood. When you don’t sleep enough, you increase your risk of alopecia areata, a common cause of accelerated hair loss. Disruptions in your daily cycle (known as circadian rhythm) affect the hormones that keep your skin moist, according to a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. Dehydration of your scalp can leave hair brittle and lead to it breaking off.
4. Nutrient deficiency
You see a lot of contradictory information about vitamin supplements and hair loss. A team of scientists assessed the data about these products and reported their findings in the journal Dermatology and Therapy. They found that a vitamin D deficiency increases your risk for hair loss. Chronically low levels of iron in your blood (particularly for women) can make you more susceptible to hair loss. Aside from those nutrient deficiencies, the researchers noted that “At the present time there is insufficient data to recommend zinc, riboflavin, folic acid or vitamin B12 supplementation” and “Neither vitamin E or biotin supplementation are supported.”
5. Overexposure to the sun
You may love the way you look with tanned skin, but too much time in the sun can lead to hair loss as well as skin cancer and other serious health problems. Overexposure to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the sun’s rays harms your hair in a couple ways. It degrades the hair follicles you have and reduces your body’s supply of keratin, the protein that hair needs to grow and replenish itself. Sunburns also result in the production of free radicals in your body, which are molecules that disrupt your body’s healthy functioning. An overabundance of free radicals causes inflammation and interferes with hair growth and production. In fact, “excessive sun exposure is the most frequent cause of hair shaft's structural impairment,” according to a report in the journal Collegium Antropologicum.
How to Reduce Your Risk
You can’t change your genes or completely prevent the possibility that your hair will get thinner as you age. But you can take steps to minimize the effects of your choices on your hair. Here’s how:
1. Relieve stress.
While all of us deal with some stress from time to time, your hair (and other aspects of your health) is affected when you never get a break from it. For many people, exercise is a handy way to release chronic stress. Focused meditation and activities such as tai chi and yoga have a long history of helping stressed-out people. The most fun way to let go of stress might be dancing. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer the tango, disco or line dancing, or if you do it alone, with a partner, or in a group. Just moving your body in rhythm to music seems to help you relax. Less stress equals less hair loss.
2. Quit smoking.
If you need another reason to drop the tobacco habit, how about preventing hair loss? Even just cutting back on the number of cigarettes you smoke each day helps, according to the research. Most health insurers today cover the costs of smoking cessation programs.
3. Sleep regularly.
You need seven to nine hours of shuteye each night to stay healthy and keep your hair growing strong. Stick with a routine of going to bed and getting up around the same time each day to help your body to find and maintain its rhythm and decrease your risk of premature hair loss.
4. Eat well.
A balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit, lean protein and whole grains supplies your body with the fuel it needs and furnishes your hair with essential nutrients. If blood tests show your levels of vitamin D or iron are too low, discuss with your doctor the appropriate remedies for you. A well-nourished body is best equipped to preserve your hair. As for other supplements with claims that they prevent or reverse hair loss, the research is not conclusive on them. They aren’t likely to harm you, but they may not help with your hair loss.
5. Cover up.
Block the sun from burning your scalp and damaging your hair by wearing a hat or scarf, or by sitting in the shade when you’re outside. For more protection, especially on days when you can’t stay covered, use a hair conditioning product made with UV screening.
6. Seek professional help.
A variety of therapies for hair loss that are implemented by physicians are currently available. These include oral finasteride for hair loss and oral minoxidil for hair loss, and topical medications, laser treatments, micro-needling, follicle transplants and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections. There are also vitamins for hair loss, hair loss supplements and shampoo for hair loss. A team of researchers evaluated the studies around all these therapies and published their results in the journal Faculty Review. The scientists found that the treatments generally have beneficial effects, but they conclude that “it is unlikely that one therapy alone will result in a desired, sustainable outcome.” Instead, they suggest that a combination of treatments chosen for your needs is your best bet for slowing and maybe even reversing hair loss. The most effective hair loss treatment, therefore, likely combines prescription medication with lifestyle changes.
Whether you suffer from Covid hair loss, postpartum hair loss, PCOS hair loss or unexplained hair loss, you should speak with your doctor about the best course of treatment for you.
The Bottom Line
You can’t stop hair loss completely, but you can avoid making choices that accelerate the process. Taking care of your overall health will help as will focusing on a healthy sleep routine, quitting smoking, eating a balanced diet, and protecting yourself from the sun. Relieving chronic stress can make a big difference in maintaining a full, thick head of hair. If your premature hair loss is more serious, talk about the available options with your healthcare providers.