Autoimmune Related Hair Loss
According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, more than 50 million people in the U.S. have at least one autoimmune disease. They affect far more women than men and often start during childbearing years. The immune system is a network of cells and tissues throughout the body including bone marrow, the thymus, spleen, lymph nodes, and white blood cells. These work together to defend the body from invasion and infection. An autoimmune disorder occurs when the body's immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake. Autoimmune diseases causes many different symptoms throughout the body – from mild to severe. Although the exact cause is unknown, several risk factors have been identified in some autoimmune disorders.
Lupus and multiple sclerosis have been identified as having a familial risk factor. Inheriting specific genes can increase the likelihood of getting an autoimmune disease, however, a combination of genes and other factors may trigger it.
Environmental exposure to sunlight and solvents, as well as viral and bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
Race or ethnic background:
Some autoimmune diseases are more common or have greater impact on certain groups. For instance, lupus is most severe in African-American and Hispanic people.
Autoimmune diseases affecting more women than men includeHashimoto’s disease, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Autoimmune Hair Loss
While there are more than 80 conditions classified as an autoimmune disorder, a few can cause hair loss. Auto immune diseases commonly associated with varying degrees of hair loss include alopecia, lupus, Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, and to a lesser extent, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis. Hair loss results from white blood cells in the immune system attacking healthy cells in hair follicles, thereby damaging the follicle and diminishing the production of hair. The good news is stem cells supplying the follicle with new cells are not targeted, so hair follicles have the potential to regrow.
Autoimmune Disease Treatments and Hair Loss
Hormone treatments and diet and lifestyle changes are often used to help treat autoimmune disorders. Steroids, androgen blockers, oral contraceptives, and immunosuppressant drugs may also be used to treat specific autoimmune diseases. These drugs all have side effects, one of which can be hair loss. When an autoimmune disease already causes hair loss, taking a drug with the same side effect can compound the situation and in extreme cases, may lead to complete baldness. Likewise, certain things like food sensitivities, environmental toxins, or medications used to treat other medical conditions can exacerbate autoimmune disease symptoms. Identifying and rectifying these factors can help resolve or alleviate some symptoms.
Brief Overview of Autoimmune Diseases Associated With Hair Loss
Alopecia areata is the most well-known auto immune disorder associated with hair loss, affecting an estimated 6.6 million people in the U.S. and 147 million people worldwide. The body's immune system sends signals to white blood cells to attack healthy hair follicle cells. This causes the hair follicles to shrink, resulting in varying degrees of visible hair loss on the scalp and sometimes on the face and body. In the majority of cases, hair falls out in small patches around the size of a quarter. However, the disorder can lead to complete loss of hair on the scalp (alopecia totalis) or in severe cases, the entire body (alopecia universalis).
Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease affecting an estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S. It can affect many different systems and organs in the body, creating a wide range of symptoms such as fatigue, headache, painful joints, anemia, abnormal blood clotting, and hair loss. Lupus is an inconsistent disease, with a constant cycle of flare-ups and periods of remission. Hair loss occurs when antibodies created by the body infiltrate the hair follicles, causing the hair shaft to be rejected by the body and fall out. Hair may grow back on its own during remission periods. If scarring occurs in affected follicles, hair loss is usually permanent. For more about Lupus related hair loss, visit this article.
Also known as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, Hashimoto’s is the leading cause of hypothyroidism in the U.S., affecting an estimated 14 million people. The disease occurs when immune system cells attack the thyroid gland, which produces hormones regulating many of the body's activities. This causes inflammation of the thyroid gland, thereby interfering with its ability to function and resulting in an underactive thyroid. Early symptoms include fatigue and sluggishness. Hair loss, increased sensitivity to cold, a puffy face, hoarse voice, unexplained weight gain, and muscle aches increase in severity if the condition remains untreated.
Some people experience thinning hair or large amounts of hair falling out in the shower or sink. Changes in hair texture can make it dry, coarse, or easily tangled. In some cases, thyroid replacement therapy with levothyroxine can lead to prolonged or excessive hair loss as a side effect. Hypothyroidism not associated with an underlying autoimmune disease can also cause hair loss.
A thyroid disorder, Graves’ disease affect an estimated 3.2 million people in the U.S. The disease causes antibodies to bind to the surface of thyroid cells, thereby stimulating them and overproducing thyroid hormones. This results in an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). The most common symptoms are inflammation of the eyes, swelling of the tissues around the eyes, and bulging of the eyes (Graves’ ophthalmopathy).
It can also affect the production of new hair on the scalp and sometimes elsewhere on the body. The imbalance of hormones forces hair follicles to enter the resting or telogen phase of the hair cycle prematurely. This period lasts longer than usual, effectively shutting down hair production. Eventually, hair loss is visible because no new hairs have grown to replace those which naturally shed over time.
Psoriasis, associated with characteristic raised, red, scaly patches on the skin, affectsan estimated 7.5 million people in the U.S. While the exact cause is unknown, genetics, arthritic tendencies, food allergies, stress, and long-standing infections are all thought to be triggers. The skin cells in people with psoriasis grow at an abnormally fast rate, causing the buildup of psoriasis lesions. Psoriasis can affect the entire body, but is most commonly is found on the elbows and knees. When the scalp is impacted, psoriasis can be severe and result in scales, redness, and sometimes itching.
Psoriasis usually does not cause large amounts of hair loss. If the scaling on the scalp is very tight, the hairs’ diameter may change and cause breakage. Psoriasis is often confused with the severe scalp condition, pityriasis amientacea, which causes distinctive hair loss.
Crohn’s disease is an incurable, inflammatory disease affecting any part of the gastrointestinal tract, affecting an estimated 700,000 people in the U.S. The exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown and while it is classified as an autoimmune disease, the connection to the immune system is just a theory. A family history of Crohn's or inflammatory bowel disease slightly increases one’s risk, but the disease is not contagious.
Hair loss is an uncommon and lesser symptom of Crohn’s, which can cause severe abdominal pain and related problems. Hair loss is caused by the disease preventing or limiting the absorption of hair nutrients and vitamins normally absorbed through the wall of the gut and filtered into the bloodstream. This results in a nutritional deficiency which can cause hair follicles to stop regenerating and begin shedding.
Coping with Autoimmune Disease Hair Loss
Completely stopping or reversing hair loss due to autoimmune diseases may not be possible, however, there are many ways to cope with the problem.
People who experience hair loss from autoimmune disorders often feel isolated or lonely. Attending support groups and connecting with other people struggling with the same disease and related hair loss provides a sense of belonging and community. Whether it is in a group setting, with an individual therapist, or an online forum, support from people who understand your situation is often helpful.
Hair Loss Strategies and Tips
From eating a healthy diet to disguising hair loss creatively, there are many ways to build confidence in the face of hair loss.
Eating a balanced healthy diet, managing stress in your life, getting adequate sleep each night, and reducing exposure to environmental toxins can boost overall health and may help control the amount of hair lost.
Some experts suggest using mild shampoos and taking supplements like Biotin, although there is little scientific evidence backing up the efficacy of vitamins to regrow hair.
Ask your hairdresser for suggestions. He or she can make your hair look thicker by cutting it in layers or feathering it. When blow drying, try lifting hair up and away from the head. You can also dye hair to cover up bare scalp areas.
Hair toppers are an ideal solution for people with some healthy hair and missing patches. Hair extensions or hairpieces come in a wide array of sizes and styles to cover thinning hair on different parts of the scalp.
High quality, beautiful wigs are a terrific way to cover hair loss and nobody will know it’s not your own hair. Wigs have the added benefit of making the morning routine simpler and will save you money on hairstyling, cuts, and coloring.
The sky is the limit on the number of beautiful hats, scarves, bandanas, and headbands that can be used to conceal thinning hair. If hair is just thinning at the front hairline or temples, extra wide headbands are a great way to cover thin areas. Headwear is not only an ideal solution for hair loss, but can add a wonderful dash of fashionable panache to your wardrobe.
For extreme and permanent hair loss, cosmetic surgery options include stretching the remaining hair to cover what has been lost, or transplanting hair from another part of the scalp. These approaches are not suitable for all autoimmune-related hair loss. Moreover, they are costly and time-consuming.
Dealing with an autoimmune disease can be overwhelming and hair loss can add to the stress. Taking advantage of every tool available can help you feel and look your best. Browse our wide selection of headwear, wigs, toppers, and beauty items, find support within your family or community, and take a look at our resource library for tips on dealing with hair loss. Keep in mind the best way to help prevent hair loss and other symptoms is to control the underlying disease.
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