Hair Loss: Alopecia Areata

If you have been diagnosed with alopecia areata, it’s likely you have also been told “there is no cure for this autoimmune condition” that causes a person to lose their hair. It can come on at any time, without warning and it can be frustrating.

While alopecia areata has been labeled an autoimmune disease it is important to keep in mind that it’s your immune system that needs your attention, not the symptoms of hair loss, which is secondary.  While losing hair, thankfully, isn’t fatal, it is a sign of a much deeper issue going on inside your body.

There are conventional medications and creams doctors commonly prescribe to help hair regrow. But most of them come with side effects and only result in temporary hair growth. Ideally, it is best to focus on natural ways to reduce ongoing hair loss, supporting your immune system, reducing inflammation, managing stress and correcting nutrient deficiencies that may be making the condition worse.

Since people with alopecia areata have compromised immune systems its not uncommon for them to be at risk for other conditions, including anxiety, depression, thyroid disease (including Hashimoto’s disease), vitiligo, allergy, asthma and eczema, lupus, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.

Studies show that among patients with alopecia areata, almost 40% of them develop signs of depression and up to 62% of them develop generalized anxiety disorder. These psychiatric disorders can develop before or after the onset of alopecia areata symptoms. About half of the cases occur after the onset of symptoms. Furthermore, research shows that stressful events occur before the onset of alopecia areata

Causes and Risk Factors

Studies involving identical twins suggest that environmental factors play a key role in the development of alopecia areata. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology evaluated 11 sets of identical twins and 3 sets of fraternal twins to determine the concordance rate of alopecia areata. Researchers found that there was a 55 percent concordance rate for identical twins and zero percent for fraternal twins. This supports a genetic component as a partial cause of alopecia areata, but not completely. Environmental triggers must also play a role in the development of the disease, including viral infections, psychological stress and trauma.

Helicobacter pylori, has also been associated with alopecia. Helicobacter pylori is found in the stomach of most individuals. But when they’re been under a lot of stress or if their immune system is compromised, then H. pylori can overgrow.

With alopecia areata, your white blood cells — which are supposed to protect your body from foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria — attack the cells of the hair follicles that normally grow rapidly. As a result of this, the hair follicles become smaller and slow down hair production.   Scientists believe that environmental factors perpetuate an inflammatory response that interacts with your hair follicles and heightens the body’s immune response. This interaction triggers the processes that lead to hair loss.

There also appears to be a seasonal cycle to the disease with an increase of relapses in the early spring, which is when there tends to be an increase in viral infections in general.

Research also shows that individuals with other autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, type-1 diabetes,lupus, Addison’s disease or thyroid disease, have an increased risk of developing alopecia areata.

Supporting your Immune System to Resolve or Reduce Alopecia Areata

Your digestive tract mediates your immune system. Researchers have found that feeding probiotic bacteria to aged mice caused beneficial changes to the integumentary system. This resulted in healthier and younger looking skin and hair. Eating probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and other cultured vegetables, can improve your immune system by building a healthy population of microbes in the gut.  This helps the body to maintain immune homeostasis.

Zinc helps to boost your immune system and repair your intestinal tract, which is vital for normal immune responses. With this in mind, zinc may actually work to help suppress symptoms of alopecia areata.  Plus, zinc is a vital mineral for healthy hair follicles and studies show that patients with alopecia areata tend to have lower serum zinc levels. Food high in zinc include, pumpkin seeds, grass-fed beef, lamb, chickpeas, cashews, and spinach.

Flavonoids have been shown to reduce inflammation and fight free radical damage. Quercetin is a type of flavonoid, that has a has strong effect on immunity and works to down-regulate inflammatory pathways. A 2012 study conducted on mice found that quercetin was effective in stimulating hair regrowth when compared to placebo injections.  Quercetin supplements and creams are available at vitamin or health food stores. Quercetin primarily enters the diet as glycoside conjugates. One of the most abundant glycosidic forms present in plants is quercetin-3-glucoside (isoquercitrin), which is hydrolyzed in the small intestine and rapidly absorbed. Foods rich in quercetin include leafy vegetables, broccoli, red onions, peppers, apples, grapes, black tea, green tea, and red wine.

Natural treatments like essential oils can have also been shown to be effective when used topically. A 2016 study conducted using mice found that when researchers applied lavender oil topically to bald patches on mice, it caused a significant increase in the number of hair follicles, deepened hair follicle depth and thickened the dermal layer. Lavender oil treatment also significantly decreased the number of white blood cells compared to the placebo group.  A study from Scotland, involved aromatherapy treatment for alopecia areata. Patients in the treatment group massaged lavender, rosemary, thyme and cedarwood essential oils, mixed with jojoba and grapeseed carrier oils, into their scalp daily. The control group used only carrier oils. Forty-four percent of the treatment group showed improvement compared with only 15 percent of patients in the control group.  Rosemary oil is commonly used to enhance hair thickness and growth. It works by increasing cellular metabolism that stimulates hair growth. Research shows that the use of rosemary oil topically can be as effective as minoxidil, a conventional treatment for alopecia areata.

It is also common for patients with alopecia areata to have nutrient deficiencies.  One of the most important aspects of addressing any autoimmune disease is to eat healing, nutrient-dense, organic foods that will work to reduce inflammation and allow your body to recover quickly. Avoid all processed and sugary foods. Increase consumption of foods rich in antioxidants, minerals and essential fatty acids.