As someone who has personally experienced two autoimmune diseases (Graves disease and Hashimotos thyroiditis) I have a special place in my heart for other autoimmune-warriors who share this path with me.
That’s why when someone recently sent me an Instagram DM asking me to share more about autoimmune diseases that cause hair loss (or can at very least negatively impact the health of our hair) I listened.
One of the reasons that we can move freely about the world without living in a sterile bubble is that we have an immune system – our body’s adaptive response to outside organisms that can, well, kill us. Sorry to go dark right away, but it’s important to understand how essential it is that we have an immune system.
Let me explain autoimmune disease in a nutshell: Our body has developed a way to differentiate between itself (our own tissues, enzymes, hormones, and so on) and outside threats (such as bacteria, parasites, etc.). However, in the case of autoimmune disease, our immune system becomes hyper-vigilant and confused. The self-tolerance that helps the immune system tell the difference between ourselves and not-ourselves (outside threats of infection) break down, making our body vulnerable to attacks from the inside.
This is something that all autoimmune conditions have in common – loss of self-tolerance by the immune system. We generally talk about autoimmune disease by focusing in on the specific part of our body that is being attacked by our immune system. For example, Hashimotos is the autoimmune attack of the thyroid gland, whereas rheumatoid arthritis is the immune attack of connective tissues. It’s important to remember though that each autoimmune disease is essentially a different expression of the same underlying issue: immune dysregulation and chronic inflammation.
Autoimmune Diseases That Cause Hair Loss
Given that hair growth is a non-essential function of our body, it should come as no surprise that in the presence of intense inflammation and immune issues that our beautiful hair can be quite vulnerable. But what are the autoimmune diseases that cause hair loss or can be especially damaging to our hair?
1. Autoimmune Alopecia (areata, totalis, universalsis)
The first way that autoimmune disease can lead to hair loss is the autoimmune attack of hair follicles. Depending on the location and severity of the hair loss, your doctor might diagnose you with either alopecia areata, totalis, or universalsis.
Your ability to regrow healthy hair after being diagnosed with alopecia depends on whether or not the hair follicle has been permanently destroyed, but many people with alopecia areata are able to regrow their hair. Regardless of whether or not hair regrowth is possible in your unique situation, it’s important to remember that hair loss is a symptom and that there is still value in uncovering and resolving hidden sources of inflammation provoking our symptoms and keeping us from feeling our best. Symptoms are our body’s invitations to us to go deeper and address the root-causes of dis-ease.
Hidden inflammation and immune dysregulation may help explain why autoimmune disease often cluster – where people with one autoimmune disease are more likely to be diagnosed with others. One example of this is the increased likelihood that someone with celiac disease would also be diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, vitiligo, and alopecia areata, among others.
2. Autoimmune-Type Telogen Effluvium
Telogen effluvium is a cause of hair loss that occurs when the hair follicles enter the rest phase prematurely (also called the telogen phase). Even though telogen effluvium is typically associated with sudden, short-term hair loss sometimes following the stress of a traumatic event, some researchers now believe that there could be an autoimmune type of this hair loss – or at least an association between autoimmune conditions like Hashimotos and telogen effluvium.
3. Scalp Psoriasis (and possibly Eczema)
Scalp itch caused by psoriasis and eczema can present a risk to our hair. That’s because incessantly scratching at our scalp can cause localized inflammation, infection, and even damage to our hair follicles. Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition affecting the skin and often presents as red, scaly patches. There are also some emerging theories about eczema (atopic dermatitis) being an immune mediated condition as well. Those with eczema are more likely to develop alopecia areata. In fact, a recent study found that being diagnosed with atopic dermatitis may increase odds of developing alopecia areata 2.5 times.
4. Autoimmune Thyroid
Hashimotos thyroiditis is an immune attack of the thyroid gland that is associated with hypothyroid. I care a lot about this particular condition having been diagnosed with Hashimotos over ten years ago. Many women are not aware that they have Hashimotos either because they don’t currently have any symptoms or because they have not had their thyroid antibodies tested. Estimates put 90-97% of women with hypothyroid as also having Hashimotos. This is one of the reasons why testing TSH alone is not enough and why working with your doctor to obtain a more comprehensive thyroid panel including autoimmune markers is a good idea.
Hashimotos thyroiditis can eventually lead to hypothyroid because of the immune destruction of our thyroid gland. Eventually, the thyroid gland won’t be able to produce enough thyroid hormone which can present a real threat to our hair. The hair growth process is very energy demanding and without enough active thyroid hormone our hair can start to thin.
Hashimotos isn’t the only autoimmune condition impacting the thyroid, and potentially your hair. Graves’ disease is another thyroid condition that can be associated with hair loss. In one study, researchers found that over 13% of the participants with Graves’ also had alopecia areata.
5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) includes both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, autoimmune conditions involving the gastrointestinal tract. IBD is commonly associated with hair loss – not just because being diagnosed with one autoimmune disease makes people more likely to be diagnosed with another – but also because of hair-essential nutrient depletions caused by IBD, such as iron and B vitamins.
In the case of autoimmune diseases that cause hair loss it’s so important to dig into the root-causes of inflammation provoking autoimmunity. Sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming to consider all of the different factors that may have led to your health deteriorating. The way I often like to approach it is to remember the foundational elements to wellness. If any of these aspects are missing, it may be that they are contributing to or worsening our condition: nourishing whole foods, healthy digestion, adequate rest, healthy stress levels, minimal toxin exposure, daily movement, sense of purpose and connection, and of course, some sunshine.
Ready to start exploring the top root-causes of hair loss? Check out my eBook Girl’s Guide to Reversing Hair Loss to learn more.