Inflammation is a highly complex component of the immune system. When your immune system is behaving normally, inflammation is a protective mechanism used to prevent our tissues from becoming infected and further damaged. However, when your immune system is not operating normally, it can turn on us and cause inflammation and damage to otherwise healthy tissues. When you look at every disease, ache, itch, and even hair loss, inflammation is usually behind the problem.
Inflammation is our body’s way of reacting to an annoyance or irritant. When your body detects that something abnormal is going on, like a tear in the skin or excess bacteria in the gut, it releases a large number of white blood cells to the damaged or irritated area to fight off bacteria and initiate the tissue healing process.
To deliver the large amount of white blood cells, your body sends an increased amount of blood and fluid, along with hormones that inform your brain to protect the damaged area. This rush of fluid leads to some characteristic symptoms found in most cases of inflammation, including:
- Loss of function
In the case of trauma or infection, these symptoms are apparent to the person experiencing inflammation. However, inflammation can also be silent, in that you don’t experience symptoms for an extended period of time (which may even be years). When inflammation is silent, it often leads to chronic illnesses like heart disease and autoimmune disorders.
Acute Inflammation vs. chronic inflammation
Inflammation is either acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is a short term process where there is an immediate response to an injury or infection. For example, we often experience acute inflammation in our nasal passages when we have a cold or ankle swelling when we twist it. Acute inflammation is usually self-limiting and goes away within days to a few weeks after the initial injury. On the other hand, chronic inflammation occurs when tissues won’t heal, or your immune system goes rogue. Chronic inflammation is usually present in tissues that won’t heal, or a person has autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, eczema, psoriasis, and lupus.
Stress and Inflammation
Stress plays a particularly interesting role in your body and can worsen inflammation. Indeed, it can be a vicious interplay between stress and inflammation because both exacerbate the other. Humans need their bodies to mount a stress response when their health and life are under threat.
The adrenal glands, which sit just above the kidneys, release a stress hormone called cortisol to cause a cascade of events that sends blood to tissues like your heart and other muscles. The response is to help you evade threats. However, chronically stressed people are also exposed to high cortisol levels, which correlate with inflammatory cytokines. Thus, chronically stressed people are more likely to suffer from inflammation and inflammatory diseases than people who manage stress more effectively.
Is There a Connection Between Inflammation and Hair Loss?
Surprisingly, hair loss can be a sign that you are experiencing chronic inflammation somewhere in your body. Indeed, even localized inflammation on your scalp can inhibit hair growth and eventually lead to scarring and baldness. Several scalp conditions cause hair thinning and loss due to inflammation, including:
- An overproduction of sebum
- Fungal infections
- Ringworm (or tinea capitis)
- Seborrhea dermatitis
- Scarring alopecia
- Alopecia areata
Inflammation is at the root of hair loss related to the conditions above. Alopecia areata, in particular, is a condition where the body develops an autoimmune response to hair follicles, causing them to become damaged and eventually fall out. Typically, people with alopecia areata lose hair in patches.
There are also systemic inflammatory conditions that have a side effect of hair loss, such as autoimmune thyroid disease and hormonal imbalance. Keep in mind that hair is not vital for human survival. Thus, when the body’s resources are needed elsewhere, hair follicles can be neglected.
How to Identify Chronic Inflammation
If the cause of your hair loss is not clear, it is beneficial to meet with your doctor to get down to the root cause of why you are suffering from hair loss and possibly inflammation. We know that chronic inflammation is often silent and does not become glaringly obvious for many years. However, certain symptoms are commonly experienced in people who are suffering from inflammation.
Mental health - People with chronic inflammation may experience fatigue, malaise, depression, anxiety, and brain fog for many years before connecting it with inflammation. If you have trouble focusing or lack mental clarity without a reasonable explanation, you may want to look deeper into your symptoms.
Skin and Hair Issues - Inflammation rarely stays below the skin. Typically, people with chronic inflammation are likely to experience rashes, skin infections, eczema, rosacea, breakouts, hair thinning, and hair loss.
Joint and muscle pain - Aching joints and muscles are ubiquitous in inflammatory disorders and are often signs that the immune system is hyperactive.
Gastrointestinal Upset - Frequent stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating can all be signs of inflammatory processes. The digestive tract is not sterile, which means it absorbs toxins and pathogens from the environment and food. These toxins may leak into your circulatory system, causing inflammation in various parts of your body.
How to Treat Hair Loss Caused by Inflammation
Getting to the bottom of what is causing inflammation is the first step to treating inflammatory hair loss. Whether the inflammation is localized to the scalp or individual hair follicles or found in other body systems, you must treat the inflammation before you can expect hair regrowth.
You must see your doctor if you are worried about inflammation. Likely, your doctor will want to run blood tests and perform a physical exam to narrow down the possible causes of your hair loss. To maximize your time with your doctor, it can help keep a journal of any symptoms that may help piece the puzzle together. For example:
- Take note of when your hair loss started and how your hair has been falling out (large amounts of shedding, patches, clumps, etc.)
- Identify any other symptoms that you may have such as stomach upset, fatigue, or skin irritations
- Reflect on your diet, daily activities, behaviors (including exercise, alcohol intake, smoking, and drug use)
- List your medications
While you are waiting for a diagnosis (and because inflammation is fickle, you may never have a clear answer), make sure to take good care of your scalp. Use hair care products that penetrate deep within the scalp to reduce inflammation and nourish every hair follicle. Some formulations contain ingredients that fight common causes of hair loss due to inflammation, like the fungus Malassezia. Also, it is never too early to start using hair regrowth systems.
Your doctor may prescribe certain medications or treatments to help reduce inflammation, like a corticosteroid. If your doctor prescribes this medication, make sure to follow the directions and take the full dose unless your doctor tells you otherwise. Furthermore, your doctor may also have other medications or treatment options to address other causes of systemic inflammation.
Finally, getting back to the basics can work wonders on your overall health and well-being when it comes to inflammation. Eat healthy, wholesome foods that contain nutrients that nourish and support hair growth, get plenty of sleep, and limit behaviors that may increase inflammation.