Anorexia nervosa is a mental health disorder characterised by restricted eating. Sufferers often lose weight rapidly, becoming malnourished. The health risks of eating disorders like anorexia are well-known — but did you know anorexia can also cause hair loss ?
Find out how and why anorexia affects hair loss, and how you can begin to recover from an eating disorder to restore your hair and overall wellbeing.
Why do people with anorexia lose hair?
People with anorexia typically eat an extremely low-calorie diet. As food is increasingly restricted, the body ceases to send nutrients to body parts that aren’t essential for survival. That means nail beds and hair follicles stop receiving nutrients, leading to weak, brittle hair and nails and ultimately hair loss.
Restricted diets can also shock the hair into falling out. This process is called telogen effluvium, and usually occurs as a result of emotional difficulty or trauma.
The symptoms of anorexia hair loss
People suffering from anorexia nervosa may experience a receding hairline, hair loss and thinning. They can also undergo loss of vitality, due to vitamin deficiencies caused by their eating disorder. Sufferers in some cases lose their eyelashes and experience receding cuticles and gums as well.
Abi Jones* shared her experience of anorexia nervosa with The Wimpole Clinic:
“I was eight when it started. A girl at school called me a ‘fat b****’ and I went quickly from 10 stone to a dangerously underweight 5.5 in a number of months. When I was at my worst my hairline receded and gums receded too.
“I also lost my eyelashes and it slowed my pubic development, so I didn’t grow hair elsewhere for a number of years, despite [having started] monthly cycles. It had a huge impact on my hormones and I still struggle with that now.”
Changes to your hair due to an eating disorder are distressing and unwanted, but sufferers are not alone. Ms. Jones says she never felt happy with her appearance, which triggered her eating disorder. When she lost her hair and eyelashes, it fed into her low self-esteem. She says, “I just felt like I was being punished for being fat… I was being punished for my hair being horrid, nowhere to put mascara.”
Hair loss as a sign of anorexia
Hair loss can be a clear sign that someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, especially if they’re young . If you notice someone has thin or patchy hair, and is displaying disrupted eating patterns, it’s important to raise the issue with them in a sensitive way. Find out how to talk to someone about an eating disorder.
Body hair growth and anorexia
Conversely, some people with anorexia see more hair growth on their body. Increased body hair can occur as a result of hormone imbalances caused by anorexia.
More commonly, body hair growth in anorexic people is often in the form of a soft, downy hair called lanugo. More commonly seen in newborn babies, this condition rarely occurs in adults. Lanugo develops when the body is trying to conserve heat, and is a symptom of severe anorexia.
Bulimia and hair loss
Bulimia is another common eating disorder, and can also cause hair loss. This eating disorder is characterised by excessive eating in a short space of time, followed by immediate removal of food from the body either by vomiting or taking laxatives. Like anorexia, bulimia disrupts the hair’s growth cycle, causing temporary hair loss as a result of shock.
Hair loss stemming from anorexia is usually temporary. That means when you begin to eat more, your hair will usually return.
It isn’t easy to overcome an eating disorder. But with proper psychological treatment, it is possible to return to a healthy body weight and restore strong hair after anorexia nervosa. With treatment and good nutrition, hair can regain strength and vitality, allowing those recovering from eating disorders to benefit from higher self-esteem, and feel better about their appearance.
Ms. Jones, who suffered a receding hairline but has now recovered, comments, “My hair is a huge part of my identity now… I wonder if that’s why? I won’t cut it short. My hair and nails, I really look after them. It’s a really valuable thing to me now.”
To reverse the effects of anorexia hair loss, you should speak to your GP or a mental health professional. They can refer you to a specialist who can help you overcome your eating disorder.
What to do if you’re experiencing hair loss and anorexia
If you’re suffering from hair loss due to an eating disorder, a hair loss specialist such as the Wimpole Clinic may be able to help you manage your symptoms. Book a consultation with an experienced trichologist to discuss any concerns you have about your hair loss.
Addressing the cause of your hair loss is the best way to restore it. Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health condition which requires specialist treatment. For information and support, visit https://www.mind.org.uk/.
*names have been changed to protect confidentiality
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