Iron is a critical mineral the human body needs to function with optimal effectiveness. Alopecia (full clinical name alopecia areata) is an autoimmune disorder of the skin that causes progressive hair loss in both men and women. What do these two have in common? More than you might think, a new Cleveland Clinic study shows!
In this article, learn about the proposed links between low iron levels and alopecia and find out if you may need to supplement your own iron levels as a form of treatment.
NOTE: Before making any significant changes in diet or supplementation, it is always a good idea to talk with your family doctor first.
How Does Your Body Use Iron?
Iron is one of the principle minerals whose job it is to deliver oxygen to all the cells of the body. Depending on whether you are male or female, your body contains anywhere from 9 to 12 pints of blood. Each pint contains a mixture of red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma and platelets.
The red blood cells are primary transporters of oxygen. Hemoglobin, a protein, is a significant component of each red blood cell. A full two-thirds of the iron your body needs is contained inside the hemoglobin.
So when your iron levels begin to decrease, this means the cells in your body are no longer getting regular oxygen deliveries as often as they need them. One of the first signs of decreasing iron levels is exhaustion. Another significant sign is less healthy skin, nails and hair.
Effects of Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency will not go unnoticed by the body, but it is up to each individual to learn the warning signs of depleted iron levels:
– Shortness of breath.
– Nausea or dizziness.
– Brittle nails and hair.
– Pale, dry skin.
– Heartbeat that feels fast or irregular.
– Non-food cravings (“pica”).
– Swollen tongue.
– Cold extremities (hands, feet).
– Restless leg syndrome (tingling in legs).
Alopecia affects an estimated 6.8 million Americans and 147 million more people worldwide. So if you have been diagnosed with alopecia, you are definitely not alone! You probably also know that alopecia often first appears as early as childhood, and no two cases are exactly alike.
What is most interesting about alopecia is that, even as you may experience cyclical bouts of hair loss, the hair follicles themselves nearly always remain capable of hair production. For this reason, alopecia symptoms often receded after a time and hair regrowth then occurs.
The Cleveland Clinic’s Landmark Study
Researchers at The Cleveland Clinic has been working to better understand the potential link between iron deficiency (low iron levels) and the onset of alopecia.
To this end, the researchers have reviewed more than 40 years’ worth of scientific research. It is this comprehensive review that led to the discovery of a potential link between low iron levels and alopecia.
The goal of this immense literature review was not only to identify commonalities between different research studies, but also to develop more effective hair regrowth treatments for alopecia sufferers. One proposed option is to screen alopecia patients for iron levels. There is a particular test called the “ferritin test” that can pick up even subtle levels of iron deficiency, so that the deficiency may perhaps be remedied before hair loss commences.
How Much Iron Does the Average Person Need?
As you might imagine, the level of iron required in a child’s body differs from the level of iron a grown man’s body requires.
In fact, medical doctors state that the level of iron your unique body needs depends on three criteria: your age, your gender and your overall level of health. Here is a general guide to give you a sense of how much iron your body needs at each stage of life:
– Infants. 11 milligrams of iron daily.
– Toddlers. 7 milligrams of iron daily.
– Children and adolescents. 11 milligrams of iron daily.
– Teenage boys. 11 milligrams of iron daily.
– Teenage girls. 15 milligrams of iron daily.
– Young adult to adult men. 8 milligrams of iron daily.
– Young adult to adult women. 18 milligrams of iron daily.
– Adults aged 50+. 8 milligrams of iron daily.
How to Take in Iron
Infants have it easiest – whether breast-fed or formula fed, infants take in iron automatically.But starting in toddlerhood, taking in iron turns into a more labor intensive task. At first, parents are responsible for ensuring toddlers and children get sufficient levels of iron (as confirmed by their pediatrician during annual exams).
Later in life, it is up to each person to ensure their levels of iron are sufficient to guard against deficiency and the health complications this can cause.
Here are some easy ways to boost your iron intake levels:
– Foods. Lean meats, seafood, chocolate, beans, nuts, fortified grains, vegetables, soy-based products.
– Supplements. Iron can be taken in multivitamin form or on its own.
In general, vegetarians must make more of a daily effort than non-vegetarians to ensure adequate intake of iron. No individual should take in more than 45 milligrams of iron daily without risk of incurring health hazards. This is because excess iron is often shunted to the liver, heart or other organs for storage, where it can build up to toxic levels and lead to cirrhosis, diabetes and heart failure.
As well, it is important to know that taking in too much iron can lead to unpleasant side effects, including nausea and constipation.
Using Iron for Management of Alopecia
The Cleveland Clinic’s study highlighted the importance of examining iron levels as a potential remedy for the onset of alopecia. However, there can be many reasons why an individual might be experiencing iron deficiency.
Each of these factors may play a part of contributing to iron deficiency:
– Excess menstrual bleeding. A woman may be bleeding too much and losing iron through blood loss.
– Hemochromatisos. Individuals with hemochromatosis may have bodies that do not do a good job at self-regulating iron levels, which can lead to deficiency/excess.
– Iron-deficiency anemia. Individuals with iron-deficiency anemia have too-low levels of iron in the blood. This condition can arise from a number of causes, included hereditary factors.
– Poor diet. Failure to take in sufficient quantities of iron through food and/or supplements can cause iron deficiency.
What to Do if You Have Alopecia & Suspect an Iron Deficiency
Alopecia at its core is classified as a skin disorder that is related to autoimmune dysfunction. For many sufferers, this means the first professional they consult is a dermatologist.
Since the results of The Cleveland Clinic’s research review are still quite new, currently there is no standard treatment for alopecia that incorporates iron supplementation. The National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF) highlights the following treatments:
– Corticosteroid injections or oral supplements.
– Minoxidil administered topically.
– Anthralin ointment/cream.
– Topical immunotherapy.
This means you will most likely need to initiate a conversation about your iron levels and request an iron ferritin test. By learning all you can about alopecia’s possible causes and new proposed effective remedies, you can be your own best recovery advocate.