Alopecia, the medical term for hair loss, affects millions of people in the United States. Both men and women can develop symptoms of alopecia, which are characterized by an increased shedding of hairs that results in thinning and then bald patches either in specific regions of the scalp or across the entire surface of the skin. In some cases, alopecia may also affect the eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair as well, though often it is confined to just the scalp.
Doctors diagnose alopecia as specific types based upon their underlying causes. Cicatricial alopecia is an untreatable form that develops when an inflammatory disease like lupus erythematosus causes permanent scarring of the hair follicles, leading to irreversible hair loss. During times of intense emotional stress or extreme physical fatigue, a temporary form of alopecia, telogen effluvium, may occur. An autoimmune disorder that results in the body mistaking the hair follicles as foreign invaders is the underlying cause of alopecia areata.
In comparison to the other forms of alopecia, pattern baldness or androgenic alopecia is far more common. The exact causes of pattern baldness are not fully understood, but appear to be related to increased levels of androgen male sex hormones. Androgenic alopecia is more common in men than women, but can occur in both sexes. By the time men reach the age of 50, 85 percent will experience at least some degree of androgenic alopecia.
When developing a treatment plan for alopecia, doctors base their techniques upon the type of alopecia that patients are experiencing. With telogen effluvium, doctors typically advise patients to eat a healthy diet and take steps to reduce the stress in their day-to-day lives, as typically, the condition improves without any other interventions. Alopecia areata is generally combated with drugs like corticosteroids and anthralin, which suppress the activities of the immune system or slow down the cellular activities in the skin along the scalp.
If you are battling androgenic alopecia, a wider array of treatment methods are available, including home remedies, clinical treatments and over-the-counter products.
For those who prefer a natural approach to health care, there are a number of alternative home remedies that have been used to successfully treat alopecia in some patients. Keep in mind that you may need to repeat the home remedy several times before noticing any real results, and depending on the reasons for the increased levels of androgens in your body, some treatments may not be effective at slowing down your hair loss or promoting new growth.
In eastern medicine, coconut oil has long been used as a treatment for alopecia, particularly when combined with additional vitamin-rich ingredients. To try coconut oil as a hair loss treatment at home, mix one cup of coconut oil with one half of a peeled avocado. Blend well in a food processor to create a paste. Spread the solution over your scalp and then wrap in plastic. Rinse your scalp after leaving the paste in place for at least 30 minutes. For best results, repeat the treatment three times per week until hair growth in areas of previous shedding begins.
Indian Gooseberry Masks
The fruit of the aamla tree, the Indian gooseberry is a commonly used treatment for hair loss in Ayurvedic medicine. You can use the technique for yourself at home by obtaining Indian gooseberry extract, reetha extract and shikakai extract from a health food or natural wellness store. Mix 2 tablespoons of each of the extracts with one egg and mix well to form a paste. Then, apply the paste and let it rest for 25 to 30 minutes. Rinse and then repeat the treatment three times per week until new hair growth begins.
In addition to topical treatments, multivitamins can help combat androgenic alopecia in some patients. Look for a multivitamin that includes folate as well as Vitamins A, B, C, D and E for best results. You can also purchase dietary supplements that are geared toward slowing and reversing alopecia.
Most men and women that are dealing with androgenic alopecia rely on over-the-counter treatments to manage the condition. A number of over-the-counter options are available, including nonprescription medicines, handheld hair stimulation devices and hair loss shampoos.
One of the most common treatments for androgenic alopecia is minoxidil, which is available in 2 and 5 percent strengths without a doctor's prescription. Minoxidil is applied directly to the scalp twice per day and is effective at lowering androgen levels within the skin. Safe for use by both men and women, minoxidil typically halts shedding, and in some cases, stimulates new growth in thinning areas. The drug has a cumulative effect, meaning that you may not notice signs of improvement until three or four months after you begin use. If you discontinue using minoxidil, shedding is likely to reoccur.
Laser Hair Combs
Clinical trials have shown that red lasers have the ability to stimulate hair growth in some people. Laser hair combs are handheld devices, which are run slowly over the scalp to expose the skin to red laser light. Typically, results from laser hair combs take at least 12 weeks to become noticeable.
Shampoos and Other Scalp Treatments
A number of shampoos and scalp treatments are available for men and women who are dealing with hair loss. These products impart the skin with medicinal and natural ingredients that lower androgen levels and increase circulation in the scalp to stop shedding and encourage regrowth.
Some common ingredients used in hair loss shampoos and scalp treatments are:
- Ketoconazole - an antifungal agent that is known to reduce androgen levels
- Saw palmetto - a natural herb which limits testosterone production
- Caffeine - a stimulant that increases circulation
- Emu oil - the extract from the fat of the emu bird shown in clinical studies to boost hair growth
When home remedies and over-the-counter treatments fail to produce results in the fight against androgenic alopecia, you can talk with your doctor about additional clinical interventions.
For androgenic alopecia, doctors often prescribe finasteride, an oral drug that lowers the amount of testosterone produced by the body. The reductions in androgen levels that follow cause hair loss to gradually slow, and in some cases, prompt new growth to begin. The drug must be used continuously for its effects to be maintained. Finasteride is safe only for use in men, and because there is a slight risk for prostate cancer associated with the drug, those considered at an increased risk for the disease are generally not able to take finasteride.
Hair Replacement Surgery
For men and women who want a more permanent solution to alopecia, hair replacement surgery may be an option. With hair replacement surgery, a plastic surgeon or dermatologist harvests hair from another region on your head or another part of your body and then transplants it to areas that are marked by thinning and baldness. A major operation, hair replacement surgery poses a risk for infection and excessive bleeding. In addition, most procedures result in at least mild scarring in the area from which the hairs are harvested.