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What Causes Hair Loss?

Thinning hair can be pretty traumatic, but not always permanent. Experts say there are ways to treat -- or at least slow down -- the scary shedding. Here, find out what's causing your hair loss and how you may be able to get growing once again.

Whether your ponytail feels thinner than it used to or you're finding yourself cleaning out the shower drain more than usual, the realization that you're losing hair can be devastating. Experts say it's completely normal to shed 100 to 150 strands a day, but anything beyond that can signify a problem. While it's not always easy to target the cause of thinning hair (genetics, hormones, and aging to name a few), recent research suggests that a permanent cure may be within our crosshairs.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that it's possible to grow new hair follicles from dermal papilla cells (stem cells) harvested from donor follicles. "This will revolutionize the way that we treat hair loss," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist, who notes that many women are not candidates for traditional hair transplantation because of insufficient donor hair. "This will offer them a new option," Zeichner says. More work will need to be done before it's a viable treatment. In the meantime, the best way to handle hair loss is to figure out the underlying cause, explains David E. Bank, M.D., a dermatologist in Mount Kisco, New York. Here are some of the most common causes and what could possibly get you growing again.

Nutrition

Most doctors will look to your diet first, explains Bank. "Low levels of iron, folate, or B12 can all contribute to hair loss," he says. If you're deficient, simply supplementing these nutrients can help. It might take several months to see results, but it's a relatively easy fix, he explains. Another (unexpected) hero of hair growth: Vitamin D. Bank says that his patients who are taking the vitamin report longer, stronger, and thicker hair. "This is something they didn't teach in the textbooks," he says. Before you run out to the drugstore and stock up on these supplements, ask your doctor to test your blood levels. "It's best to get straight, unadulterated levels drawn before you take anything," he says. This way your doctor can pinpoint which nutrient has a positive effect.

Hormones

Anyone who has ever given birth can tell you about the clumps of hair that fall out up to five months after delivery, a temporary (and normal) ­­­condition called telogen effluvium. Pregnancy hormones put hair follicles at rest during the nine months. Post pregnancy, the normal cycle resumes and those dormant follicles try to make up for lost time, causing rapid shedding, Bank explains. Other hormonal conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which stems from an excess of androgens (male hormones), can also cause hair loss. And too little or too much thyroid hormone can lead to fall out, Bank says. Both PCOS and thyroid-induced hair loss can be reversed with proper treatment and medication, Bank says.

Aging

When thinning is age-related, your hair follicle actually shrinks (a process called miniaturization), producing a finer strand of hair. The follicle continues to downsize until it no longer pumps out any strands, explains Francesca Fusco, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. While this type of hair loss is considered permanent, there are things you can do to prevent or slow down the process. "There are pharmacologic agents such as Minoxidil, the active ingredient in Rogaine, that can reverse the effect of miniaturization," she says. The drawback: Results only last as long as you're using it. If you stop, your hair loss will revert back to where nature intended you to be.

See how to care for gray hair.

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