I remember the day I discovered Alopecia Areata so clearly. My scalp was burning. Then I noticed something different. I had three angry, red and totally bald patches, alopecia areata. I remember this feeling of disbelief and shock. It just didn’t make sense. My hair has always been so thick and healthy. Why had I lost my hair?
The first thing I did was go to a dermatologist. She was very kind but insisted there was nothing for me to do for alopecia areata. All she had to offer was to apply minoxidil and hope it grows back. I did use this but inevitably lost most of my hair. I didn’t give up on looking for a solution though. I began to dig for an answer to my why – the root cause.
Now, everyone’s ultimate root cause for alopecia areata, like all autoimmune diseases, will vary. We are so complex biologically and emotionally that it’s really hard to pinpoint one reason that this might happen. What I can do, though, is share what I’ve discovered during my journey and hope that you find this helpful.
Stress and Alopecia Areata
This may not be a root cause of your alopecia areata but my guess is that you find yourself losing more hair when you’re stressed.
When I was losing my hair, I was going through a significant amount of stress. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer and then died from chemotherapy. At the time, I wasn’t very aware of how I was clinging onto negative emotions related to all that happened. In fact, I was replaying moments in my head like a loop.
Our body is completely unable to recognize the difference between something that is happening to us in the moment or something that we’re just thinking of. So as I was playing these negative story loops in my head I was triggering stress responses.
Stress has some interesting effects on our body. When we’re stressed, either acutely (like running from a tiger) or chronically (like being unhappy at work) our body treats it the same. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear diverting energy from our digestive system and putting it into energy for running away really fast. The simple result is nutrient deficiency, gut microbiome imbalances and adrenal fatigue.
Running along life in this state has a significant impact on our wellbeing and can be a trigger for alopecia areata.
Action Step 1 – Reduce Stress
- Start simply by using a meditation app like Headspace to do 5 minute meditations daily. This will help you become more aware of your thoughts.
- Journal daily, either free writing or simply listing three to five things you’re grateful for that day.
- Use the rubber band on the wrist method. When you notice a negative thought creep in, snap the rubber band on your wrist and choose another thought.
Microbiome Imbalances and Alopecia Areata
Which leads me to microbiome imbalances. When your good gut bacteria is overrun by either bad gut bacteria or by a Candida overgrowth, this can cause skin and scalp disorders like alopecia areata and psoriasis.
I had been suffering from irritable bowel symptoms since college. I didn’t know it at the time but I had developed sensitivities to gluten and dairy. I didn’t even know what gluten was at the time, so I just kept eating foods that didn’t agree with me, ignoring the clear signs my body was sending me. I had also been on oral contraceptives to help with my acne for years though in hindsight, eliminating dairy would have had the same affect on my acne.
Gut imbalances can happen for a number of reasons in addition to stress.
A diet full of simple carbs, sugar and processed foods can create imbalance in your gut by feeding bad bacteria. Many of these types of foods are also highly inflammatory.
At the time that I found my first spots, I was eating a gluten and dairy free diet with relatively low sugar. However, I was consuming plenty of carbs still in the form of starchy gluten free products and alcohol (which is inflammatory). I also wasn’t eating nearly enough veggies at the time which helps to feed your good gut bacteria.
Birth Control Pill
More recently, research has suggested that oral contraceptives have caused an increase in the rate of irritable bowel syndrome, gut microbiome imbalances, leaky gut and autoimmune disease.
Considering the length of time I was taking oral contraceptives, first for acne and then as birth control, it’s easy to see how I would have developed gut issues and autoimmune disease. Sadly this research came out long after I had stopped taking oral contraceptives.
Most antibiotics are broad spectrum meaning they kill off any and all bacteria in the body. When this happens new real estate opens up for yeast cells, like Candida albicans, which aren’t affected by the antibiotic. This can also create new real estate for more aggressive bad bacteria to grow.
Action Step 2 – Heal Your Gut
- Reduce or remove inflammatory foods including alcohol, sugar, refined carbs, gluten and dairy. You can also try Specific Carbohydrate Diet, Anti-Candida Diet or Autoimmune Protocol Diet as these are all designed to reduce inflammation and support rebalancing the gut.
- Consider alternatives to oral contraceptives, if you are currently taking these. Speak with your doctor or naturopath to discuss options.
- Get tested to determine if you have a gut infection. An Organic Acids Test that you can order online, is a simple urine test that covers all of these infections.
Nutrient Deficiency and Alopecia Areata
One trigger of alopecia areata is when our gut is out of balance or if it becomes “leaky”. This is in part because we don’t absorb nutrients. I had been low in iron stores for years but didn’t quite know why. At first I thought it was because I had stopped eating red meat for a year. I was still supplementing with iron during that time so I was a bit stumped.
It happens that an overgrowth of Candida albicans is a major reason for iron deficiency. So if you have a gut infection, it’s important to look at your iron levels, not just saturation but also iron stores. If your iron saturation and iron stores are low, then it may be likely that your vitamin C levels are also low as they act symbiotically. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant and necessary for good immune system function.
Other reasons for low iron levels can be related to folate deficiency and B-12 deficiency.
Action Step 3 – Optimize Your Nutrients
- Have your iron levels tested to see if you need supplementation or an infusion via IV.
- Consider having your B vitamins and C tested as well and supplement as needed.
What to do right now?
You might be thinking, well that’s all well and good but I have bald spots all over my head today. How do I flourish with alopecia areata, and how do I cover up the spots and help my hair to regrow?
When I have bald spots on my head that I can’t easily cover with my hair style, I use a hair fiber like this one on Amazon.
This is great for spots that are near the top of your head. You sprinkle this fiber onto your thin or bald spots to create more coverage so your bald spots are less obvious.
If you have a noticeable spot on the sides or back of your head, using something like a root touch-up powder as it tends to be a bit more tacky than the fiber.
Finding some comfortable hats is also a great fallback for those days you don’t want to go through the process of covering up your spots. My favorite has been Flipside Hats in Portland, Oregon. Their hats are made with soft cotton and are light and breathable.
And of course, there are wigs. The challenge with wigs is that if they’re synthetic, they reflect light making them look a bit like a helmet. There are wigs, designed for cancer patients, that have a combination of human hair and synthetic hair that look a bit more natural. You would expect to pay around $250 for these. For 100% human hair wigs, you would go to a wig specialist to help size your wig, order it and then style it to match what you would like. These look amazing of course but can cost upwards to $3,000. I personally borrowed a wig from a friend who had them from when she had chemotherapy treatment. It was a combination of synthetic and real hair and worked well for the year I wore it.
I currently use red light therapy to help regrow my hair. The one I use is called iGrow Red light therapy is pretty wonderful and useful for so many other health and wellness challenges. This device though is designed for hair growth and it’s like a helmet you wear for 25 minutes a day at least 3 days a week.
One last option to help you regrow your hair, that I have on my radar, is Plasma Rich Platelets (PRP) to help promote hair follicle renewal. This is an expensive process however and so I would place this at the bottom of the action list. Once you’ve addressed underlying issues like gut microbiome imbalances and infections, nutrient deficiency and stress then this could be a therapy to try if you’re still having difficulty regrowing your hair. This is typically performed by a naturopathic doctor who specializes in this procedure.
Overall, your Alopecia Areata or Universalis is a symptom of an imbalance in your body. By addressing root causes, you can start to rebalance your body to support healing. Again, everyone is different! But knowing what one person’s journey has been, may help give you some ideas on where to start looking.
Today I’m still working on rebalancing my gut and getting my nutrients back up to optimal levels.
It’s a journey and finding the right practitioners to work with you during this time will make a big difference in how you progress. I prefer naturopathic and functional medicine doctors over allopathic (conventional) doctors because they tend to focus on getting to the root causes of symptoms and rebalancing the body. I also have worked with chiropractors, health coaches, acupuncturists, massage therapists, energy healers as well as Counterstrain and NAET practitioners. My team has changed over time to meet me where I’m at in my healing journey and take me to that next level.
I wish you well in your healing journey. Remember that anything is possible.