Anorexia’s effect on hair growth

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One body system, among others, that anorexia nervosa (AN) impacts is the integumentary system. It is the largest organ system of the body and comprises the skin, hair, and nails. (1) The skin gets dry, the nails brittle, and, perhaps most distressing, hair becomes weak and can fall out.

If you’re living with AN and are already struggling with self-esteem, losing hair can add to distress and self-image issues. Thankfully, hair loss related to anorexia is rarely permanent and is reversible with weight restoration and a return to a well-balanced diet.

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How does anorexia affect hair growth

Hair loss, alopecia, and fragile and opaque hair are reported in 17-61% of people with anorexia. (2) People with anorexia may also experience hair becoming fine, thin, or brittle, a condition known as lanugo. (7)

Obsessive-compulsive traits, common in those with eating disorders, can also result in trichotillomania, a disorder characterized by a compulsive urge to pull out one’s hair. . So, if you do have issues with hair loss while living with anorexia, you’re not alone.

Malnutrition and hair loss

The consistent malnourishment from food restriction in those with anorexia results in a loss of vital nutrients, including to the scalp. (3) This is because resources are diverted away from the integumentary system to maintain the health of vital organs when the body isn’t getting sufficient calories, protein, and other essential nutrients.

This can lead to what is known as telogen effluvium, which is where healthy hair follicles go dormant or prematurely jump to the end of their lifespan, causing the hair to shed. (4) The hair sheds faster than it grows, causing thinning hair and bald spots, in concentrated areas or evenly. 

These changes usually occur between three to four months after the start of consistent caloric restriction. (5)

Nutrient deficiencies linked to hair loss

Our hair is made up primarily of a protein called keratin. When a person’s body is malnourished through anorexia, the body’s protein stores are depleted. When this occurs, the body prioritizes protein for essential functions, and away from hair growth, leading to stalled growth, and weak and brittle hair. 

A lack of sufficient protein, along with other nutrient deficiencies, can lead to hair loss. Vitamins and minerals linked to hair loss, include, but are not limited to: (6)

  • Iron: Helps red blood cells deliver oxygen and nutrients to hair follicles. Without sufficient iron, the hair won’t grow, becoming progressively thinner.
  • Vitamin D: Stimulates cell growth, including old and new hair follicles, and, therefore, a lack of vitamin D can contribute to poor hair growth and hair loss.
  • Vitamin B7: Also known as biotin, vitamin B7 enhances hair growth by enriching the keratin structure of the hair. A deficiency in vitamin B7 can lead to weak and brittle hair.
  • Vitamin B3: Also known as niacin, vitamin B3 helps boost blood flow to the scalp, contributing to healthy hair growth.
  • Zinc: A zinc deficiency has been linked to brittle hair and hair loss, which may be linked to the key roles it plays in cell function and protein synthesis.

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Anorexia recovery and hair regrowth

As bad as it feels, hair loss may be the trigger a person needs to seek treatment, as it reflects the damage occurring inside the body, helping someone with anorexia realize the very real dangers of their disordered eating behaviors.

Seeking treatment for anorexia is difficult, but early intervention is key to reducing both the short- and long-term effects of the eating disorder. 

How treatment for anorexia can restore hair growth

Through treatment, your team will help address the underlying causes of your condition while providing support for overcoming any disordered eating behaviors. A medical team can address any associated health concerns, like hair loss.

A registered dietician (RD) is a key part of a treatment team for anorexia. They will teach you about the nutritional value of food and what you need to eat for your body to maintain its proper functioning and assist in nutritional rehabilitation, if needed. 

With the help of a registered dietician, you’ll come up with a meal plan to make sure you’re getting the right balance of nutrients to restore your hair loss and reverse the other effects of anorexia. They will also advise you on any supplements you may need to help improve the health of your hair.

Once proper nutrition has been resumed and you start weight restoration, if needed, the health of your hair should improve. It will become stronger, stop shedding, and begin to regrow. Within as little as 8 to 10 months into recovery, you should see significant changes in your hair.

It can take time, but hair regrowth is usually possible if you re-nourish your body and reverse malnutrition. Reach out to our team at Within Health today to start virtual treatment for anorexia nervosa.

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Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. The integumentary system and eating disorders. Eating Disorder Hope. (2021, December 10). Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/long-term-effects-health/integumentary-system 
  2. Strumia R. (2013). Eating disorders and the skin. Clinics in dermatology, 31(1), 80–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clindermatol.2011.11.011
  3. Diffuse hair loss—could the patient have an eating disorder? (2007). Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 56(2). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2006.10.305 
  4. Guo, E. L., & Katta, R. (2017). Diet and hair loss: Effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatology Practical & Conceptual, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.5826/dpc.0701a01 
  5. Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Eating disorders and depression. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/eating-disorders-the-facts/202203/eating-disorders-and-depression 
  6. WebMD. (n.d.). 4 vitamin deficiencies that can cause hair loss. WebMD. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/hair-loss/vitamin-deficiencies-that-can-cause-hair-loss 
  7. Warning signs and symptoms. National Eating Disorders Association. (2017, February 26). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/anorexia/warning-signs-symptoms

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