Experts suggest that HALF of all women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) go undiagnosed.
Yet this condition can contribute to a range of symptoms, one of the most distressing of which is hair loss.
This page is designed to help you decide if PCOS may be the cause of YOUR hair loss. It also includes lots of advice for how to prevent – or reverse – the damage.
Please note: This information is not to be seen as medical advice. It is very important to contact a medical professional to discuss your hair loss, or before taking any supplements.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a common condition where the ovaries become enlarged and contain many follicular cysts. Estimated to affect around 1 in 10 women of child-bearing age, it is usually diagnosed during the teenage years to early 20s.
What Causes PCOS?
Frustratingly, the exact cause of PCOS is not known.
It is related to the levels of certain hormones in the body, particularly to high levels of insulin. It tends to run in families, and can be passed down by either parent.
It’s quite a vicious circle…
If you have PCOS, then your body is resistant to the action of insulin (which regulates your sugar levels). To compensate for this, your body starts producing even MORE insulin.
This then leads to the production of excess testosterone, an androgen that controls male characteristics. Although testosterone is thought of as a purely male hormone, we women have it too, usually just in smaller amounts. But if you have PCOS, then your androgen levels are too high.
Resistance to insulin can also cause you to gain weight. Being overweight causes your body to produce more insulin.
And so the vicious circle continues!
One of the most unfair aspects of PCOS has to be that it not only causes hair loss from the scalp, it also causes hair growth, but in places you don’t want it (such as face, breasts and stomach).
Caused by the raised level of androgens in the body, this is called hirsutism.
Other symptoms of PCOS include
- Irregular periods
- Problems conceiving – too much testosterone in the body has a negative effect on the follicles of the ovaries, preventing ovulation.
- Oily skin
- Very heavy periods
- Depression (caused by hormonal imbalance, but probably also caused by the other symptoms, which can be tough to cope with!)
- Sleep apnoea
- Darkened skin patches around the neck or groin, or in the armpit
Whilst not considered ‘symptoms’, skin tags and dandruff also seem to be common in women with PCOS.
Why Does PCOS Cause Hair Loss?
If there is too much testosterone in your body, then your body converts it to something called dihydrotestosterone (better known as DHT).
DHT causes the hair follicles to shrink, which means that new hairs become finer and finer, and eventually stop growing altogether.
How is PCOS Diagnosed?
There is no specific test for PCOS, which might explain why so many cases go undiagnosed!
If your doctor suspects that you may be affected, he/she may carry out a physical exam to look for signs of the disorder (such as high blood pressure, evidence of excess body hair etc).
Your height/weight ratio may also be checked, to make sure your BMI (body mass index) is healthy.
Further tests may include
- Blood tests
- Hormone tests
- Ultrasound exam
If you feel that your symptoms fit with PCOS but your concerns are not being taken seriously, it’s important to push for a diagnosis.
Many women have contacted me saying that their PCOS went undiagnosed for some time, as their symptoms were being dismissed as related to other conditions, or simply to their age!
If you are going through menopause, however, please do check out this page about the relationship between your estrogen levels and your hair loss.
It’s important, too, that your thyroid levels are checked, because some of the symptoms associated with thyroid problems are the same as those caused by PCOS.
Can PCOS Cause Complications?
Yes. If it’s not treated, PCOS can lead to heart disease and diabetes.
So proper diagnosis – and taking the steps to treat the disorder – are vital.
Treatments for PCOS
There isn’t one standard treatment for PCOS, because it manifests itself in different ways for different people.
Not everyone will experience ALL of the symptoms, so only the symptoms present will need to be treated.
Many women with PCOS hair loss are prescribed one or more of the following…
Flutamide, finasteride, cyproterone acetate and spironolactone are used to block androgens (male hormones) in order to prevent their effects (such as hair loss and hirsutism).
Another commonly prescribed medication is the diabetes drug metformin (Glucophage).
Metformin helps your body become more sensitive to insulin, so insulin levels drop. As they do so, your testosterone levels fall too, reducing their effects on your body.
Treating the symptoms, but not the problem?
There are two issues with taking medications to treat the symptoms of PCOS.
One, is that certain drugs can cause side effects which – for some women – can be just as troubling as the PCOS itself!
Two, is that the medications are only treating the symptoms, rather than tackling the cause.
Fortunately, there are other approaches that can be useful in tackling PCOS hair loss.
Healthy Diet and Lifestyle
It seems simplistic to suggest that switching to a healthy diet and lifestyle can help control PCOS.
But the connection is clear – and the fact that rising rates of obesity correlate with rising rates of PCOS shows just what an important role the diet plays.
The cruel irony of PCOS, though, is that it causes you to crave foods high in carbohydrates and fats –
just another part of that vicious circle I referred to earlier!
The best advice, then, is to avoid ‘dieting’ (as in dramatically reducing your food intake), to simply concentrating on making healthier food choices.
And to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, try eating little and often.
To keep yourself feeling full for longer, try eating lots of protein.
You’ll be amazed how well this works – there are even scientific studies to prove that eggs (which are packed with protein) can help you lose weight. The research showed that a breakfast of eggs kept participants feeling full for longer, reducing the amount of food consumed for the rest of the day.
Other high protein foods include
- Greek yogurt
- Chicken or turkey
You can help satisfy your craving for fats by consuming healthy fats.
Good foods to try include
- Fatty fish, like sardines, mackerel, salmon and trout
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
As an additional bonus, foods rich in protein and healthy fats are good for the overall condition and growth of your hair, even when PCOS is not an issue!
Another important factor in improving your overall health and controlling your PCOS is exercise. This can take many forms, from a brisk daily walk, to dance, to regular workouts. You may need to try a few different things to find the one you enjoy doing!
With any type of hair loss, monitoring your iron levels is essential!
Visit this page to read more about the relationship between iron and hair loss, plus tips on increasing your intake.
Other Important Nutrients
Your doctor may not ‘prescribe’ them to you, but certain nutrients seem to be particularly important in controlling PCOS.
An article in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal described how deficiencies in certain nutrients could contribute to the symptoms of PCOS.
These nutrients include
- Essential fatty acids
*Researchers noted decreased hair loss in women with PCOS following zinc supplementation. Read more…
Please see this page for more information about including these nutrients in your diet.
Separate research shows a strong connection between vitamin D intake and PCOS.
You can increase your intake of vitamin D by eating more…
- Fatty fish
- Egg yolks
You can also look for ‘vitamin D fortified’ foods like orange juice and cereal.
It’s also a good idea to get a little sunlight to your skin! Sunlight actually prompts your body to produce its OWN vitamin D. So if you tend to spend a lot of time indoors, a daily walk to expose your skin to the sun (with sunscreen of course) will help give your vitamin D levels a boost, and provide some exercise at the same time!
Normalizing Your Hormone Levels
There are other ways you can try to get your hormone levels under control, without resorting to medication.
It is believed that women who smoke have higher levels of male hormones, which cause the symptoms of PCOS.
Avoid alcohol as much as possible.
Try to avoid the influence of environmental elements that can affect hormone levels.
- Eat organic. Non-organic produce is treated with pesticides and fungicides. Non organic milk and meats often contain high levels of sex or growth hormones.
- Eat clean. This means sticking to natural, whole foods. Avoid processed foods wherever possible.
- Avoid xenoestrogens – chemicals that have similar effects on the body as estrogen, thereby upsetting the hormonal balance. Xenoestrogens can be found in non-organic produce, dairy and meat; plastic water bottles; plastic food wrap; skin care products and Teflon coated cookware.
The key is to keep the foods you consume and the products you use as natural as possible – glass jars, for example, instead of plastic containers. Or natural cleaning products instead of manufactured ones.
This may be a huge lifestyle change, but it’s a rewarding one. And whilst organic meat and produce might be more expensive, the incredible difference in flavor makes it worthwhile!
On the other hand, many skin care items and household cleaning products can be made at home – with natural ingredients – for a fraction of the cost of commercial products!
Keep your stress levels to a minimum.
Yes, this can be easier said than done, but there are some good tips to help you here.
And finally, get plenty of sleep – consistently!
- When you’re experiencing PCOS hair loss, it’s more important than ever to take care of your existing hair. Try to avoid harsh chemicals (ie. perms, colors, bleach etc) and products containing sulfates or alcohol). If possible, go a little longer between washes, to allow your natural oils to nourish your hair.
- Avoid tight hairstyles that put your hair under traction – this can do even more damage!
- Try a good hair loss shampoo. Whilst these don’t make hair grow, they are kind to existing hair, and nourish the scalp.
- Consider taking saw palmetto. Many women find this supplement helpful in regrowing hair. Biotin is popular too. Remember, though, to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.
- Try Spearmint tea. Some women report good results with it, and a small, scientific study showed that it can reduce the hirsutism associated with PCOS. This means it should be useful in reducing the associated hair loss, too. You need to be committed, though – it seems that you need around 3 cups a day to see results.
- Consider the supplement NAC (N-Acetyl-Cysteine).
More about N-Acetyl-Cysteine
Used for a wide range of medical purposes – from cholesterol reduction to treating bronchitis – N-Acetyl-Cysteine is a powerful anti-oxidant. It seems to be safe, is widely available and appears to be helpful in treating PCOS, because it helps regulate the body’s insulin levels.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, one of the drugs often used to treat PCOS is the diabetes drug metformin. By decreasing your body’s insulin levels, the drug thereby causes your androgen levels to drop too, which reduces your hair loss.
N-Acetyl-Cysteine – as this study shows – appears to have the same effect.
Sources and for more information…
Over to you…
If you have experienced the hair loss associated with PCOS and have any tips, advice or experiences to share, please do contact me and let me know.