At the beginning, it is often insidious: a few more hairs than usual in your brush or the shower drain. But after a while, it becomes hard to ignore those growing patches of bare scalp you see in the mirror.
People have tried to fight hair loss for millennia, using such unlikely concoctions as boiled porcupine hair (Egypt) and a mixture that included opium, horseradish and pigeon droppings (Greece). But it was in China where a healing system (today referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine) saw hair loss as the outer sign of an inner dysfunction, one that could be corrected with treatment.
Hair Under Tension
The average adult’s scalp is home to between 120,000 and 150,000 hair follicles, each undergoing a three-step growth process. In the growing phase, the strand lengthens by about a centimeter a month before entering a transitional phase, in which growth slows. The hair then passes into the resting phase.
Most people lose from 50 to 100 strands a day. This rate can increase in both genders, however, due to a number of factors, such as physical or emotional stress, rapid weight loss, certain medications (most noteably chemotherapy agents) and disorders that include lupus, low thyroid function and such hormonal problems as polycystic ovary syndrome.
Other factors also contribute to hair loss, such as styling techniques that pull on the roots, or treatments, such as dyeing, that cause damage. And hair that has been subject to such environmental factors as sun, wind and cold may become prone to breakage.
Of course, the most common (and relentless) cause of hair loss is a combination of aging and genetic bad luck.
In men, this often takes the form of male pattern baldness (MPB), with its typical receding hairline and thinning crown. MPB occurs when hair follicles are sensitive to a testosterone byproduct called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT can shorten the hair’s growth phase; in each new cycle, the follicle produces increasingly shorter and finer hairs, until none remain.
In women, hair tends to thin from the center, rarely progressing to total baldness. Both genders can develop alopecia areata, in which an overactive immune system attacks the follicles, causing hair to fall out in round patches on the scalp or elsewhere on the body.
Chinese medicine views all undesirable conditions, including hair loss, as the result of imbalances among the body’s “organs,” which, in TCM theory, aren’t physical structures as much as energy distribution points. Stagnation in these organs—in the case of hair loss, the liver and kidney—keeps blood from rising to the scalp, which results in a failure to nourish the hair.
In addition to acupuncture and massage therapy, TCM offers an array of herbal remedies for thinning hair. For example, Polygonum multiflorum has been employed by Chinese healers for centuries to slow hair loss and restore gray hair to its original color. In modern studies, it has shown an ability to spur resting hair follicles into renewed growth and to protect both the liver and the kidneys.
Another herb used in TCM for hair loss, Centella asiatica (commonly known as gotu kola), is thought to stimulate hair growth by increasing blood circulation to the scalp, especially in cases of male pattern baldness and other types of hair loss associated with aging.
TCM often employs herbal remedies in combination to maximize their effectiveness. Such formulations often include Poria cocos, a Chinese mushroom that has demonstrated an ability to fight inflammation; Eclipta prostrata, the main “hair herb” in India’s system of Ayurvedic medicine, which also regards it as a liver tonic; and the culinary herb rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), traditionally employed not only to stimulate hair growth but also to improve memory.
Formulations may include different herbs for men and women. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), a small palm native to the Southeastern US, is best known for its use in easing the symptoms of an enlarged prostate; some TCM-based formulations include it because of its ability to block the formation of DHT.
Formulations for women may include Ligustrum lucidum, a traditional tonic for the liver and kidneys, and Urtica dioica (stinging nettle), an anti-inflammatory agent used to combat hair loss and encourage new growth.
Of course, no treatment for hair loss, herbal or otherwise, will be effective if you don’t follow a hair-friendly lifestyle.
That means no harsh styling or treatments (including minimal use of blow dryers and other heated styling implements) and washing your hair every other day if it’s oily or twice a week if it’s dry. You should also massage your scalp regularly, working in small circles from the hairline to the sides, then over the top and down to the base of the neck. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water and eat a diet rich in fresh produce.
Hair loss can be distressing, but Chinese medicine offers a potentially helpful approach.