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Hair Loss? It May Be Iron Deficiency

Too Little Iron in Blood of Men and Women Shedding Hair

Hair Loss May Be a Symptom of Serious Illness continued...

Cotsarelis and colleagues have found that women with hair loss have significantly lower iron stores than women without hair loss. Surprisingly, this was particularly true for women with alopecia areata, a form of hair loss caused by haywire immune responses.

"Our theory is that lower iron levels decrease the threshold for developing hair loss of any kind in genetically predisposed individuals," Cotsarelis says. "So people prone to develop even hereditary hair loss, if their iron levels are low, it accelerates that process. We think it's because the hair follicles grow so much, they require a lot of iron."

Women who frequently have heavy menstrual periods often become iron deficient. "If you have a healthy woman with hair loss, you can assume iron deficiency," Trost says.

Iron deficiency is less common in men and postmenopausal women than in women of childbearing age. But it's something Cotsarelis and Trost see often in people with hair loss. Especially when it gets to the point of anemia, iron deficiency can be a symptom of very serious illness. It's important for a doctor to find out why this is happening.

"If you have a man or a postmenopausal woman with iron-deficiency anemia, you need to do a workup to find out why," Trost says. "Say you have a 55-year-old man with iron-deficiency anemia -- it could be caused by bleeding due to colon cancer. Believe it or not, someone can come in complaining of hair loss, and find out it is something serious."

Don't Take Iron Supplements Without Doctor Visit

Iron supplements are not a cure for baldness. But as part of a multipronged approach, Cotsarelis and Trost say, supplements can be a big help.

So is a diet full of iron-rich foods, such as tofu, lentils, beans, oysters, spinach, prunes, raisins, and, yes, lean beef.

Trost says he and Bergfeld usually recommend these foods, plus supplementation with ferrous sulfate, 325 milligrams per day taken on an empty stomach.

It's not an easy supplement to take.

"Iron supplements cause constipation and gastrointestinal upset," Cotsarelis says. "We try different preparations, but they but all seem to have similar problems. And there is some anecdotal evidence that orange juice, vitamin C, or lysine, if take together with the iron, helps the absorption."

Do not take iron supplements unless a doctor has told you that you have iron deficiency, Trost warns.

"Iron supplements are available over the counter, but we recommend you take them only under the supervision of a doctor," he says. "It is safe, when used appropriately, but if taken when inappropriate it can cause some harm. If you take a too-high dose of vitamin C, your body eliminates it -- but iron doesn't work that way. Your body can regulate how quickly it uptakes iron, but has no way to get rid of it quickly. If you are not deficient, you can get iron overload, which can be dangerous."

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