Eating Disorders and Hair Loss: Causes, Signs & Treatments

All vital and accessory organs in the body need nutrition to grow. And human hair is an important yet accessory structure that performs a variety of functions, such as providing protection and regulating body temperature. But beyond that, hair has emotional value, which is why losing it can be devastating. 

One of the many symptoms of eating disorders is hair loss. This goes for anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. That’s because all of them affect the body in one way or another, which can impact the hair growth cycle. But is this type of hair loss reversible? Let’s find out.

What Are Eating Disorders? 

According to the NHS, an eating disorder is a mental illness where “the control of food” is used as a coping mechanism to deal with “feelings and other situations.” A person suffering from it obsesses about the food they eat and their appearance.

As a result, you either overeat or undereat. For this reason, eating disorders can be dangerous and even life-threatening. There are different types of eating disorders, the most common of which are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa – It is characterised by self-starvation, where people restrict their food intake to lose weight. You may feel overweight even when you’re severely underweight
  • Bulimia – It is characterised by episodes of binge eating followed by purging through vomiting, the use of laxatives, and fasting. Even though people with this condition can manage to maintain a normal weight, they can still end up doing permanent damage to their bodies. 
  • Binge-Eating – It is characterised by an uncontrollable urge to frequently eat large amounts of food. Binge-eating disorder, however, does not result in compensatory behaviours to control weight, as does bulimia. 

There are other less common eating disorders, such as orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy foods), AFRID (very picky eating), and rumination eating disorder (regurgitating undigested food followed by re-chewing and re-swallowing), among others. Symptoms can vary depending on the type of eating disorder. 

These conditions affect millions of people around the world. And more women are reported to suffer from it. Keep in mind that eating disorders don’t discriminate (and they’re certainly not a choice); they can affect anyone, regardless of ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation.

How Do Eating Disorders Affect the Body?

In addition to affecting physical functioning, eating disorders can also negatively impact psychological and social functioning. As far as the physical is concerned, you may experience the following: 

  • Heart problems – difficulty pumping blood due to weak heart muscles, low heart rate, low blood pressure, and increased risk of cardiac failure, among other problems. 
  • Dehydration – Dizziness, fatigue, faster heart rate and feeling thirsty are the most common signs. Dehydration can also reduce blood circulation, and if left untreated, it will affect your kidneys and heart health. 
  • Nutrient Deficiencies – Vitamin (B and D) and mineral deficiencies (zinc, copper, etc.) can occur. It can cause anaemia, irregular heartbeat, hair loss, oral diseases and even osteoporosis. 
  • Hormonal Imbalance – Hormonal changes occur due to food intake habits. It can cause hypothyroidism, osteoporosis, infertility, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Stress hormones will also be released, which will affect your mental health. 
  • Electrolyte Imbalance – Purging can leave the body with too little water. Most commonly, eating disorders affect the potassium levels in the blood. Left untreated, it can affect the respiratory, cardiac, digestive, and excretory systems, among others. It can also cause seizures, weakness, headache, nausea, etc. 
  • Digestive Problems – You may develop various digestive issues, such as GERD, IBS, intestinal tears/ruptures, facial swelling, constipation, and it can also make it harder for your body to digest food. Additionally, purging can increase the risk of cancer.
  • Brain Problems – Eating disorders can decrease the size of your brain. This can affect your day-to-day functioning. 

There are many different ways in which eating disorders affect the body. Keep in mind that your body takes energy from food to continue growing normally. If there’s any disturbance in it, it will affect your entire body. 

How Eating Disorders Cause Hair Loss?

A symptom of eating disorders is hair loss, which can occur in patches or diffusely. There are more than a few reasons why these disorders lead to hair loss. 

Body Is In Survival Mode 

Your body goes into survival mode when you’re not eating enough. As a result, your body prioritises vital functions only (even those are slowed down to conserve energy). Since your hair is simply an accessory structure, it’s not needed to keep you alive. And so, your hair won’t get the nutrients it needs to grow. 

Degradation of various bodily functions and the resultant poor health can also make your mind and body go into survival mode. Both can affect your hair growth as well. 

Shock To The System 

Telogen effluvium is a type of hair loss that can occur when the body experiences shock. The “shock” of undereating or overeating can force the hair into the resting or telogen stage. And 3-4 months following the shock event, you will start to lose your hair. Keep in mind that the significant stress due to the disorder itself can induce this type of hair loss. 

Nutrient Deficiency 

It’s well-known that hair is primarily made up of the protein keratin. However, protein isn’t all that your hair needs to grow. It also needs vitamins and minerals. And since eating disorders can lead to their deficiency, you can lose your hair as a result. 

For instance, anorexia can cause anaemia due to restricted food intake. And iron deficiency due to anaemia can disrupt the hair growth cycle and cause shock loss. Other than that, vitamin D deficiency is common in people who have eating disorders. 

Now, vitamin D is needed by your hair follicles to grow. Without it, hair growth would be stunted. However, that’s not all. Vitamin D deficiency is also a risk factor for alopecia areata; it’s an autoimmune disorder that leaves bald, circular patches on the scalp. So, that can also cause hair loss.  

Poor Blood Circulation 

As mentioned above, eating disorders can lead to the weakening of the heart muscles, which affects their pumping ability. This can result in poor blood circulation. So, your hair won’t get the adequate oxygen and nutrients that it needs to grow normally. That will also lead to poor hair growth. 

Hormonal Issues

The hormonal imbalance caused by eating disorders can also lead to hair loss. For instance, if you have developed hypothyroidism – essentially, underactive thyroid glands – it can cause telogen effluvium or even trigger alopecia areata. 

Moreover, the stress hormones released due to eating disorders can also cause “stress hair loss.” Additionally, if you develop diabetes (triggered by an eating disorder), that, too, can cause shedding. 

What Are Signs You’re Losing Your Hair Due To An Eating Disorder?

A person with an eating disorder will not only lose their hair but also see some changes in their hair’s structure and appearance. Signs you’re losing your hair due to an eating disorder include: 

  • Dry hair 
  • Weakened hair 
  • More hair on the pillow, floor, drain, and clothes 
  • Thinner and brittle hair 
  • Hair prone to breaking more easily 

Interestingly enough, while eating disorders can make the hair on your scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, and face fall out, it can result in the growth of soft, downy hair on the body. This is known as lanugo, and you see this kind of fine, wispy hair on the body of a baby. But adults with eating disorders can also grow it because their body fat is not enough to keep them warm. 

Does Hair Loss From An Eating Disorder Grow Back?

Usually, eating disorder-related hair loss is reversible. However, normal regrowth can only occur after you’ve developed a healthy relationship with food. And although your hair will eventually grow back, it will take some time. In case of telogen effluvium, it usually takes 6 months for hair to start growing again. 

Keep in mind that many systems in the body are disturbed due to the eating disorder, and it can take some time for them to regain stability. For example, you aren’t just losing your hair due to telogen effluvium; you’re also losing your hair because your digestive system isn’t working properly. Different factors are reinforcing hair loss. So, all of them need to get better for your hair to start growing. 

How To Manage Hair Loss Due To Eating Disorders? 

Once you’re on the road to recovery, your doctor may recommend the following for normal hair growth to occur: 

Supplements 

Since disordered eating causes nutritional deficiencies, you may be advised to take certain supplements like: 

  • Zinc
  • Biotin (vitamin B7)
  • Vitamin D 
  • Iron 

Do not take these without consulting your doctor. Blood tests may be needed to determine the type of deficiency you have. That way, you’ll start noticing actual hair growth once you start taking the supplements. 

Oiling and Massaging 

As mentioned above, your hair can feel dry and brittle due to these conditions. So, you can consider oiling your hair to moisturise and nourish them. For this, you can consider using coconut, argan, jojoba, olive, or almond oils. Additionally, consider massaging your scalp as it will stimulate blood flow. 

Gentle Hair Care 

As your hair will be thin, brittle and prone to breakage, you have to be extra careful and gentle with it. So, you should try keeping your hair loose. Tying it too hard can put too much tension on the hair, which will end up breaking it. 

Moreover, until your hair has gotten back to normal, try avoiding the use of curlers, straighteners, or blow-dryers, as heat can further damage the hair. And lastly, do not shampoo too much because that will also over-dry the hair. It is also important to make sure the water is not too hot when taking a bath.  

Balanced Diet 

You need to make your diet wholesome for your hair to grow well. So, make sure to include whole grains, leafy green vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy in your meal plans. This will ensure that your hair grows normally. 

Medications 

If you’ve developed alopecia areata due to an eating disorder, your doctor may prescribe you some medications, such as corticosteroids (injections, topical or oral) or minoxidil. Anthralin and topical immunotherapy drugs may also be prescribed for its treatment. 

PRP Therapy 

Platelet-rich plasma or PRP therapy, has also been known to stimulate hair growth. It contains growth factors that are anti-inflammatory and even have tissue-regenerating properties. Practitioners have recommended it for hair loss due to telogen effluvium and alopecia areata. You can also ask your doctor if it’s okay for you to get this treatment. 

Can You Get A Hair Transplant With Eating Disorder?

While you’re suffering from an eating disorder, you’re advised against getting a hair transplant. Keep in mind that hair loss due to eating disorders is usually reversible, so you don’t need a transplant surgery in that case. 

However, if you have coexisting pattern baldness or genetic hair loss, you can get transplantation surgery after recovery. This is because hair loss due to disordered eating can occur concurrently with pattern baldness. And as a result, it will be difficult to identify the donor and recipient areas on the scalp.

Your health (low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, dehydration, etc.) will also put you at a greater risk of surgical complications. You might also not be able to recover successfully. For instance, during recovery, your hair grafts need sufficient blood to grow. 

And since eating disorders can cause poor blood circulation, your grafts can starve and die, which will lower the overall hair density. That’s why you need to delay the surgery until you’ve fully recovered. Otherwise, there are many different ways in which even a small transplantation surgery can put your health at risk. 

Conclusion 

Physical and psychological health can be severely affected by eating disorders. Because of that, you can experience hair loss, among other symptoms. While not everyone loses their hair due to anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, it occurs fairly commonly. Taking care of this problem requires dealing with the root cause, which is the eating disorder. For this, it’s important that you get help from a mental health professional. 

Fortunately, hair loss due to an eating disorder is not always permanent. It can be reversed, but you have to be on the road to recovery to do so. Consult a dermatologist during this time to ensure that your hair can grow normally and healthily.

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