The condition of your hair can reveal if you are heading for a brush with ill health. Learn what to look for.
Hair today ...
Throw away your assumptions that blondes are dizzy, red heads fiery and brunettes intellectual. The colour of your hair does not mean anything, but the condition of it could be giving away any number of clues about the state of your health. According to a trichologist of 47 years, Barry Stevens, who founded the Trichological Society, a worldwide organisation headquartered in London, the state of your hair is ultimately revealing, to the extent that an expert can tell whether you're highly stressed, suffering from hormonal or mineral deficiencies, pregnant or have just been through a traumatic event or serious illness.
The most common problems seen by trichologists concern hair loss, a phenomenon that hits the UAE harder than most countries, according to a survey commissioned by The National and conducted by the pollster YouGov earlier this year. The results showed that over a third of people surveyed living in the UAE have lost their hair to some degree, with almost half of all women questioned (47 per cent) admitting to being affected. The cause is yet to be determined, but water quality and weather conditions are thought to be possible factors.
New in Dubai this year, Dr Batra's Positive Health Clinic has strategies and expertise to help with all kinds of balding and hair loss. Batra, a former pupil of Stevens, says the good news for sufferers is that the problem can be reversed in some cases. Hair loss is not always inevitable or irreversible and screening for a number of vitamin deficiencies, anaemia and thyroid problems can help find a solution to the problem.
"You can diagnose many illnesses through hairfall," explains Stevens. "Iron deficiency is a major problem in women. Dieting to excess can show up as hair loss, and I have seen situations where women have dieted so severely to get into their wedding dresses that it has resulted in them losing their hair. Iron deficiency is behind it - it happens all the time." Vegetarian diets lacking in iron can have the same result. If ferritin - a protein that stores iron and releases it in a controlled fashion - drops to below sufficient levels, the hair's development can fail. Ferritin is crucial in hair development as well as avoiding anaemia.
Trichologists will rule out other issues through blood tests and establish if the patient is suffering from a lack of vitamin B12, which can also affect hair generation. Usually, a simple supplement of Ferrous Sulphate or B12 can sort the problem out, although neither is an instant solution and will take at least a few weeks to show any difference. "Hair loss can be emotionally stimulated," says Stevens. "Being emotionally drained can show in your hair. And in the case of anorexia, hair loss is one of the first symptoms. Your body doesn't know that it's going to get better and starts shutting down. It will try to hang on to life and as hair generation needs to be fed and fuelled, if the body is emaciated, it will cut off the functions that it deems expendable just to keep going."
Hormonal changes affect the hair greatly. I became interested in what my hair was saying about my health when I visited a new hairdresser earlier this year. Without being prompted, she asked me if I'd just had a baby. I tearfully shook my head as I'd just had a miscarriage, but was amazed that she could have detected something like that in my hair. In women, the hair typically looks lustrous through pregnancy - and mine is now, because I'm pregnant again - as the hair cycle is different.
"Your hair looks thick in pregnancy because the high levels of oestrogen in your body means that during that time, hair that would normally fall out doesn't," says Stevens. "Technically, the hair isn't thicker - it just looks it because it doesn't fall out." Post-birth, the oestrogen levels go back to normal, so your hair will seem to be falling out, but it is just the excess hair that would have naturally fallen out in the previous nine months completing its cycle. Women suffering from lowered oestrogen levels, in menopause for example, will find that their hair will thin and perhaps fall out. This is because the hormonal balance in the body has shifted and there is proportionally more male hormone than before.
Oestrogen is not the only hormone to affect your hair. In both men and women, the function of the thyroid gland has a big impact on the hair's development and if it is not working as normal, it will be clear to see. "Dry, grassy hair that feels like a coconut mat and is very brittle is an indicator of very low thyroid function, hypothyroidism. It's associated with other symptoms such as putting on weight and getting tired easily too," says Stevens. "Low and underactive thyroids can cause permanent baldness. At the other end of the scale, an overactive thyroid makes it particularly greasy."
Cosmetic changes, such as the darkening of blonde hair, are usually a function of ageing, but strange changes can happen following illnesses. After ringworm of the scalp, most common in prepubescent children, the hair can change from being straight to curly. That is because the fungal infection can change the shape of the hair follicle, from the circular shape which produces straight hair, to kidney-shaped for curly hair.
Dr Nilofer Farjo is one of the world's experts in follicular surgery, along with her husband, Dr Bessam Farjo, and specialises in hair transplantation from the Farjo Medical Centre in Manchester, England. They have various projects ongoing about hair and health, including one in conjunction with the University of London about how environmental factors can affect balding. "We have taken biopsies of permanent hair and balding hair and put them under different conditions to compare their growth in the lab," says Farjo. "Free radicals have been shown to play a key role. Up to now, we had assumed that hair loss was hormonally triggered and had genetic susceptibility. But now our research is showing that there's more to it than that."
She says an excess of free radicals can cause damage to hair cells spawned by pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides. Among the most exciting developments in the world of hair today is the use of stem cell research to correct hair loss. The Farjo Medical Centre has had two projects through clinical trials where it have taken hairs from a permanent area of growth, extracted the root cells, multiplied them and injected them into the bald area of scalp for regrowth. It has been successful on mice, and a safety study has been passed, but the current results aren't significant enough on humans.
The trichologist Philip Kingsley runs clinics in London and New York and has been practising for the past 50 years. He agrees with Farjo's assessment that environmental factors affect hair. "Among the most obvious things you can tell from someone's hair is that they smoke," he said. "Smoking can cause discolouration, particularly on grey hair or bleached blonde hair. And a poor diet can weaken the hair, cause it to fall prematurely and lead to diameter reductions in the hair strands, making the hair finer."
Bad hair days do not, however, reveal anything about your health. "They are random," says Kingsley, "depending, too, on how the hair is slept on, products used, the way they are used and weather. "There are five key things that you can do to keep your hair looking healthy, however. Shampoo and condition regularly to start with. Use a scalp mask once a week to keep your scalp healthy. Using a hair mask once a week will also keep your hair flexible and stretchable. And finally, eat a high protein diet, especially at breakfast and lunch."
Beauty, it seems, really does come from within.