Losing weight is almost always a positive decision for your health and appearance. Most people look attractive when they are at a healthy weight for their height, and there’s no quicker way to shut up your doctor than to get your BMI down.
However, there are times when weight loss can have negative temporary effects, especially on our hair.
Hair loss can sometimes occur when people lose weight under specific circumstances, although this can be prevented with the right knowledge and care.
There are three stages of the hair growth cycle (1). They are:
When our bodies are under stress or low on calories, protein, or nutrients, our hair follicles stay in the resting, rather than a growing, phase. These resting hairs are more easily lost than hair in other phases.
Hair may fall out while washing or brushing, or even fall out with no encouragement at all. This disorder is called telogen effluvium.
Healthy and sustainable weight loss – that which is due to a healthy restriction of calories under the direction of your physician – is the only safe way to lose weight while still maintaining your overall health.
However, if you restrict your calories too much or fail to focus on nutrition, you can deal with many side effects including hair loss (2).
In most cases of severe caloric restriction, hair loss does not happen right away. Telogen effluvium usually begins three months after the stress or lack of nutrients. This can be confusing to people as they may never connect the hair loss with the factor that causes it.
This delay is due to the way the hair cycle operates.
Hair goes through several phases. When hair stops growing, in the telogen or resting phase, it takes about three months before it begins to shed.
Once hair begins to shed, this can last for several months, even if the person has resumed a diet with enough nutrition to support hair growth.
Within a year, most people have regrown their lost hair and have a normal healthy appearance again. Most people never go completely bald from this disorder, although they may have noticeably thinner hair for several months.
When we are under stress or not getting enough nutrients (including times when we’re “dieting”) our bodies respond by shutting down unnecessary functions, including hair growth.
There are several deficiencies that have been found to be especially likely to contribute to anorexia hair loss. Protein and calorie malnutrition both commonly cause hair loss in women, but these deficiencies are rare in the modern developed world (3).
When a person’s body is malnourished, such as during an eating disorder, the protein stores in their body become depleted. When this occurs, the body has to make sure that it takes care of essential functions (such as organ function and retaining muscle tissue) above all else.
Our hair, which is made up of a protein called keratin, is not as essential to our body’s functioning (4). So, hair growth stops so the body can focus on keeping that person alive.
Additionally, many people suffer from deficiencies of trace nutrients such as iron, zinc, B vitamins, and certain amino acids. Many researchers believe that these deficiencies are a major cause of telogen effluvium in the modern world (5).
Many women with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia start to see significant hair loss after about a year into their eating disorder.
Almost any diet that restricts calories or protein for an extended period of time can cause hair loss. The body perceives times of calorie or protein restriction as a famine and begins to conserve energy by getting rid of unnecessary functions.
While on dramatic restriction diets, people also may notice changes in their skin and in their fingernails. Skin may become looser and drier, and nails may become more brittle.
In general doctors recommend that people lose weight by calculating their basic caloric needs and then cutting around 10%. This should cause around 0.5 to 2 pounds a week in weight loss even without changes in physical activity.
People can sustain this level of weight loss for a long time without hair loss or other unwanted side effects. However, many people decide to use more drastic diets and fasts because they want quick results. This is when hair loss can become a factor.
Can weight loss cause hair loss even when people take care to get enough calories and nutrients? This is extremely rare. In most cases, only extreme diets and restrictive eating disorders will make people lose hair.
Can weight loss cause hair loss that requires medical attention? The answer to this question is complicated.
In general, there is nothing that a doctor can do to stop telogen effluvium. They may be able to advise you on how to eat more healthily or to manage stress, but they cannot restore your hair. There are currently no treatments for telogen effluvium except to identify and stop the cause.
However, there are several medical conditions that can mimic weight-induced hair loss in women.
For example, hypothyroidism can cause hair loss as well as a variety of other symptoms (6).
Similarly, toxin exposure, excess vitamin A, and other reversible medical conditions can cause hair loss. It is important to see a doctor if your hair loss does not appear to resolve in a few months, or if you are having other symptoms that are concerning.
If you have an eating disorder, there is help. Hair loss is just one of many negative consequences of rapid weight loss and disordered eating; anorexia and bulimia are deadly conditions. You are not alone.
If you want to lose weight without losing hair, there are a few measures you can take. While these will not guarantee a thick, full mane, they will give you a greater chance of keeping your hair volume while losing weight.
These steps will not only prevent hair loss, but can actually cause you to gain hair. In addition, they will ensure that you have increased shine and length, which is all a girl could ask for!
The most powerful thing that you can do to regrow hair is to stop doing whatever is making it fall out. Take the above tips on healthy dieting seriously. For most people, these tips will ensure fast and healthy hair regrowth.
Although it will take time for hair to regrow, there are ways to help support the process.
Many people have gone through weight loss related hair loss. While this can be concerning and even scary, it usually is minor and will resolve quickly. Although it can be difficult, keeping a healthy diet and stress-free lifestyle is key to preventing this disorder.
You may feel conflicted because you want to lose weight quickly, but you don’t want to lose any more hair. I hope I’ve given you reason to pause and consider your weight loss strategy; crash and fad diets are gonna spell danger for your precious tresses!
There are healthy and sustainable ways to lose weight.
Is hair loss possible when weight loss is done in a safe way? Sometimes. But it’s often temporary.
On the other hand, severe caloric restriction and nutrient deficiency can lead to a type of hair loss known as telogen effluvium. And the longer the restriction and deficiency continues, the longer the hair loss will continue.
Fortunately, it is possible to continue to lose weight while also reducing – and even stopping – telogen effluvium. This includes healthy caloric restriction, a diet of nutrient-rich foods, nutrient supplementation, and physical activity.