Insulin resistance and female hair loss

By naturopath Margaret Jasinska

Scalp hair loss in women is an extremely common condition, and a very distressing problem. It is a frequent reason for patients to visit our clinic. There are several potential causes of scalp hair loss in women, but I’m seeing insulin resistance as an overwhelmingly common contributor.

The following factors may lead to scalp hair loss in women

  • Thyroid gland conditions. Most typically an under active thyroid gland can cause diffuse scalp hair loss, but it may also occur when the thyroid is over active. Correcting thyroid hormone levels is essential, as is managing autoimmune disease. The majority of thyroid conditions are caused by autoimmune disease. The inflammation present in autoimmune disease can promote hair loss even if thyroid hormones are normal in a blood test. For more information see our book Healing Autoimmune Disease: A plan to help your immune system and reduce inflammation.
  • Nutrient deficiencies. Being low in iron and B vitamins (particularly biotin) can cause scalp hair loss. Several nutrients can be checked in a blood test. I find that at least half of my female patients are low in iron. The best blood test for this is ferritin. MSM (Methyl-Sulphonyl–Methane), zinc, vitamin C and silica provide the raw materials for collagen and keratin production and are found in Collagen Food powder. Collagen and keratin are a vital part of the hair structure and enable hair to be strong and healthy.
  • Stress. Emotional stress or physical stress (illness, accident, surgery) is a common cause of hair loss. Once the stress is resolved, hair growth usually improves but it takes time. Magnesium is wonderful for helping to relieve the symptoms of stress.
  • Lack of progesterone. Women are supposed to make progesterone in the second half of their menstrual cycle, after they’ve ovulated. Insufficient progesterone production is very common. If you haven’t ovulated, you won’t produce progesterone. If you are highly stressed you’ll convert your progesterone to cortisol. Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome don’t make enough progesterone and they typically suffer with scalp hair loss. Hormonal birth control like the pill prevents progesterone production, and some forms of birth control are worse than others for encouraging hair loss. Additionally, coming off the pill can sometimes be a trigger for hair loss, due to the sudden hormonal change. This also happens after childbirth.
  • Age and genetic factors. Most women lose scalp hair after menopause due to the decline in oestrogen and progesterone. As we age, all of us lose scalp hair. There was an article about hair loss in Australian Doctor magazine recently with the line “There is no 80 year old with as much scalp hair as when they were 18”. Genetic factors play a role in how much scalp hair is lost.
  • Excess male hormones. Male hormones are referred to as androgens. The main one is testosterone but there are others. Genetics, obesity, polycystic ovarian syndrome and a high carbohydrate diet are the most common factors that raise androgens in women. Insulin resistance is often the underlying culprit.

What is insulin resistance?

Most people think about diabetics when they see the word insulin, but problems with insulin can occur in a number of different conditions, in people with normal blood sugar. You have probably heard of insulin resistance; it is a significant and extremely common health problem. People with insulin resistance usually have excessively high levels of this hormone because it doesn’t work properly.

People with too much insulin in their bloodstream are said to have insulin resistance, syndrome X, metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes. They are all interchangeable terms.

Due to modern diets and lifestyles, nearly everybody produces more insulin in their pancreas than they should. This is a problem because if blood insulin levels have been high for years, the cells of your body start to ignore it. The insulin becomes less and less effective at its important job in your body (getting glucose inside your cells so you can burn it for energy).

Women with insulin resistance are more likely to carry excess weight around their torso, suffer with polycystic ovarian syndrome, acne and excess facial hair. They are also more likely to have a family history of type 2 diabetes. Elevated insulin levels in women can cause excessive production of male hormones, excess levels of “free” hormones, or increased sensitivity to normal levels of male hormones. When this happens, scalp hair loss can occur at the front and sides, in the male pattern.

How to correct insulin resistance and restore scalp hair

  • It’s important to avoid sugar in your diet or significantly reduce your consumption. Sugar and excess carbohydrate in general are the biggest drivers of insulin resistance.
  • Intermittent fasting works well to help reset insulin sensitivity. This may mean having an early dinner and a late breakfast, in order to extend the overnight fast. Sometimes this is difficult due to working hours. It’s also extremely beneficial to avoid snacking; this way you will be fasting between meals. Try to eat three proper meals each day and drink a lot of fluids between meals.
  • Exercise improves insulin sensitivity. Ideally you’d do some cardiovascular exercise that makes you short of breath and some muscle strengthening exercise that uses weights or your own body weight.
  • Excessive inflammation in the body can worsen insulin resistance. You can reduce inflammation by minimising or avoiding gluten, wheat, dairy products, alcohol and any food you might have an allergy or intolerance to.
  • There are several herbs and minerals that are excellent for reversing insulin resistance. If you would like more information please email us or call our advisory line on 02 4655 4666.
  • Find out if you have a fatty liver. If so, this makes reversing insulin resistance much harder. A fatty liver can be reversed in most instances, but it requires specific strategies, which are outlined in the book Fatty Liver: You Can Reverse It.
  • A bio-identical progesterone cream may be needed by women who don’t ovulate regularly (eg. PCOS). Progesterone cream can help to re-establish a normal menstrual cycle and helps to thicken scalp hair. Progesterone cream requires a doctor’s prescription. Contact us if you’d like more information.
  • Dr Cabot’s book Hormones Don’t Let Them Ruin Your Life covers different hormonal problems such as PCOS and natural treatments ranging from diet, lifestyle, supplements and natural hormone therapy.
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