What happens to hair growth when you have anorexia?

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Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a severe eating disorder characterized by an extreme fear of gaining weight and obsession to lose weight through starvation and excessive exercise. Over time, the body is deprived of the essential nutrients it needs to function. Chronic starvation can lead to nutritional deficiencies and very serious medical complications. Noticable changes to a person’s appearance can include dramatic weight loss, dry or yellowish skin, and hair loss.

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What happens to hair growth with anorexia nervosa?

For the body to operate properly when it is starved of energy in the form of calories and essential nutrients, it slows down non-essential functions in order to survive. For example, to conserve energy for critical functions, such as keeping the cardiovascular system operating, when you’re not consuming enough calories, hair growth will slow down. This can lead to dry, brittle, thinning hair in those who have anorexia.

Anorexia nervosa can also lead to hair loss because of specific nutritional deficiencies that stop the hair from growing as usual. For example, a recent study that evaluated the relationship between malnutrition and hair loss in women found those with hair loss had lower levels of iron, zinc, and vitamin D, compared to women not experiencing hair loss. (1) Since anorexia involves a severe restriction in food intake, individuals with this eating disorder are likely to develop deficiencies in these nutrients, leading to hair loss.

How to restore hair growth with anorexia

Fortunately, the hair loss and thinning that occurs with an eating disorder is often reversible. When a person consumes a healthy diet composed of adequate calories and essential nutrients, hair growth continues as normal. Sometimes, nutritional supplementation is needed to restore hair growth. Some research shows supplementing with zinc can increase hair thickness. (2) And some people may benefit from taking an iron supplement to restore hair growth. 

But dietary supplements alone are not likely to promote hair growth if you do not consume enough calories to meet your body’s needs. A nutritious diet can restore hair growth to normal levels. When you begin consuming enough calories through nutritious foods, your body will have the energy it needs to carry out all functions, as well as essential vitamins and minerals to maintain hair growth.

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Anorexia treatment and hair growth

Dietary supplements and adequate nutrition can assist with hair growth, as part of a treatment plan for anorexia. And treatment is absolutely necessary, as anorexia nervosa is a very serious mental health condition that can have life-threatening consequences. Anorexia can lead to severe medical problems, including irregular heartbeat, muscle weakness, low blood pressure, and even heart failure.

But the damage anorexia nervosa does to the body and mind can almost always be reversed, and health can be restored with a comprehensive treatment program. A complete medical evaluation will determine what approaches will best address an individual’s needs to facilitate a full recovery. Treatment can include a variety of services to help someone struggling with anorexia repair their relationship with food, eating, and their body, such as individual therapy, nutrition counseling, medication, and group therapy. (3)

Asking for help is the first step. The seasoned team of eating disorders experts at Within Health is here for you. Call us now to learn more about our virtual care programs for eating disorders.

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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. Kareem, J. B. (2019). A study of prolactin, thyroid stimulating hormones, malondialdehyde and ceruloplasmin levels in infertile women, in Thi-Qar Governorate/Iraq. University of Thi-Qar Journal of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.32792/utq/utjmed/14/2/2/0 
  2. Adelman, M. J., Bedford, L. M., & Potts, G. A. (2020). Clinical efficacy of popular oral hair growth supplement ingredients. International Journal of Dermatology. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijd.15344 
  3. Anorexia nervosa: What it is, symptoms, diagnosis & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9794-anorexia-nervosa

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