If you've been experiencing your hair thinning—and you aren't in the midst of a major medical scenario—chances are you're wondering what's causing the problem. There are many reasons you could be losing hair, some of which are related to nutrition.
Iron deficiency, known formally as anemia, is quite common. It affects 17 percent of premenopausal women, about one in six. Could it be the culprit behind your hair loss? We consulted board-certified dermatologists Rina Weimann, MD, FAAD, and Vladyslava Doktor, MD, to find out. Keep reading for everything you need to know about the relationship between iron deficiency and hair loss.
Meet the Expert
- Rina Weimann (Allawh), MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist with the Schweiger Dermatology Group.
- Vladyslava Doktor, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the owner of Skin Center Boston.
Is There a Link Between Hair Loss and Iron Deficiency?
Yes, there can be a link between hair loss and iron deficiency. "One of the first steps in diagnosing any hair loss or thinning in my practice involves checking ferritin or iron levels in the blood," Doktor tells us. "Iron deficiency that causes anemia can directly affect hair growth and thinning."
Weimann tells us that no large studies have linked the two yet—but that doesn't mean there isn't a link. "Smaller studies have emerged revealing that low iron may be linked to female-pattern hair loss, telogen effluvium (stress-induced hair loss), and alopecia areata," she tells us. "There are some studies revealing the importance of iron for hair shaft integrity, meaning the strength and thickness of the hair. Low iron levels may be linked to brittle hair and frequent hair breakage."
More Common Causes of Hair Loss
While iron deficiencies can cause hair loss, so can several other factors. Let's look at those to better understand what can cause thinning hair.
Your family history can be a determining factor when it comes to how much of your hair will remain on your head throughout your life. "Female-pattern or male-pattern thinning, wherein there is recession of the hairline, thinning of the crown, and a widened part (primarily in females), may be attributed to genetics and the impact of the male hormone on the hair follicle," Weimann tells us. Doktor says this type of hair loss "affects ~70 percent of men and a large population of women."
Pregnancy and postpartum can both disrupt your hair growth. Pregnancy might see it get better, whereas once you give birth, it may worsen. "Postpartum hair loss is a frequent dermatologic concern and, as one may expect, may impact self-confidence and mental state," Weimann explains. "Hormonal changes during pregnancy promote an increase in hair growth. (Thick, luscious hair during pregnancy is definitely a benefit.) However, during postpartum the estrogen levels begin to fall, resulting in what is termed postpartum telogen effluvium, which can be devastating for many and sometimes prolonged."
She tells us that "postpartum hair loss may initially start as diffuse shedding and thinning of the hair and may persist for months. [A few people] experiencing postpartum hair loss may experience a more pronounced thinning and widening of their part on the crown of the scalp and a receding hairline. This type of hair loss is referred to as androgenetic or female-pattern hair loss."
"Hair is very sensitive to any changes our body is experiencing, such as surgeries, anesthesia, illnesses, pregnancy, and hormonal changes [like] thyroid gland disorders," Doktor explains. Weimann adds that alopecia areata, a form of non-scarring hair loss that typically presents with round patches, "is caused by the immune system attacking a part of the hair follicle. This may be associated with other autoimmune diseases, such as thyroid disease, type I diabetes, and lupus, and may be triggered by stress (physical or emotional)."
Weimann tells us that "telogen effluvium (stress-induced hair loss) presents as diffuse thinning of the scalp" and that those who experience it may see significant shedding. "This may be caused by an emotional stressor, illness, or physical stressor (i.e., car accident, injury, trauma). "
How to Diagnose the Cause of Your Hair Loss
While it might be tempting to take a guess what's causing your hair loss, our derms recommend against it. "See a board-certified dermatologist to closely examine your scalp for redness, scaling, and/or evidence of scarring," Weimann says. "Your dermatologist may also perform a hair-pull test to evaluate the degree of hair loss and screen for telogen effluvium (stress-induced hair loss)." She says that, in addition to this diagnostic work, if iron deficiency might be causing your hair loss, they will also do blood work to discern your iron levels.
How to Treat Iron Deficiency-Related Hair Loss
Doktor tells us that once an iron deficiency is diagnosed, you'll want to pin down the cause. That's to ensure that once the problem is treated, it won't happen again. "Iron deficiency can be treated firstly by finding the root cause of the iron loss," she says. "Common causes of iron deficiency include chronic blood loss—as in the case of heavy menstrual periods—pregnancy, dietary changes that exclude iron-rich foods, and gastrointestinal issues resulting in malabsorption."
Once you understand what's going on, it's time to supplement iron. "Your dermatologist, in conjunction with your primary care physician, may start you on an oral iron supplement," says Weimann. Doktor notes that a common over-the-counter iron supplement, Slow-Fe, "is gentle on the stomach and won't cause constipation issues that can commonly arise with iron supplementation."
In addition to supplementation, both derms say changing your diet and eating more iron-rich foods will help, too. "Iron may also be derived in different forms, and incorporating a healthy, iron-rich diet may also be helpful for both hair and nail health," explains Weimann. That said, you don't want to overcorrect: "I would caution you to avoid too much iron consumption, as this may be harmful to your liver," she says.
The Final Takeaway
There are many reasons a person may be experiencing hair loss. Your genes, hormonal changes, illness, and even stress can come into play. And while iron deficiency could be at the root of your problem, if you're experiencing hair loss, your best bet is to see a dermatologist. They can perform tests to determine the cause, and if they suspect iron loss, they'll order labs to find out.
If iron deficiency is causing your hair loss, it's pretty simple to fix: You'll want to take an iron supplement and eat more iron-rich foods. Hair loss can be an ordeal, but if iron deficiency is causing yours, it's at least manageable and treatable.
Are we underestimating the prevalence of iron deficiency? [Internet]. Columbia University Irving Medical Center. 2021