Estrogen and hair loss are connected - and on this page we look at how too little (or too much) of this female hormone can have a significant impact on the growth of your hair.
Estrogen (known as oestrogen in some parts of the world) isn't just a single hormone - it's actually a group of female sex hormones.
The group includes estradiol (the type we have most of in our bodies and the one most often given in supplementary form), estriol (most abundant during pregnancy) and estrone (the type we produce during menopause).
Estrogen is made in the ovaries and to a lesser extent in other tissues of the body. Whilst women have the most, men have some estrogen too.
Estrogen is responsible for giving us our 'feminine' characteristics, essentially doing the opposite of the male hormone testosterone and blocking its effects (because the female body DOES contain some testosterone).
Clearly, estrogen (or oestrogen) is important to our over all well-being... and our hair - that 'barometer of health' - can be one of the first areas affected when something upsets the hormonal balance in our bodies.
Source: Dermal Institute
Our hair grows in stages...
Source: Dr Maryellen Smith
There is evidence that estrogen actually slows the rate of growth, extending the growth phase so more hair is at this stage at any moment in time.
This is why women's hair is more abundant than men's.
Remember, too, that estrogen works in opposition to the testosterone in the female body, preventing the hair loss that testosterone can cause.
What's more, studies suggest that estrogen doesn't JUST protect against hair loss, but actually stimulates new hair growth.
The relationship between estrogen and hair loss is particularly noticeable during pregnancy, when the higher concentrations give women hair that's thicker, healthier and more plentiful than usual.
(This 'extra' hair, however, tends to fall out within several months of giving birth - click here to learn more about postpartum hair loss).
Whilst elevated estrogen levels during pregnancy encourage hair growth, decreased estrogen levels in the body may contribute to hair loss.
This is most noticeable during menopause, when estrogen levels tend to drop and the hair follicles fall under the influence of the male hormone testosterone, shortening the growth phase.
The subsequent hair loss is usually gradual, but noticeable.
Learn more about the link between hair loss and menopause
You may also notice hair loss if you're taking supplementary estrogen, then stop.
Case in point are women who come off birth control, only to
find that their hair begins to shed at a rapid rate. This tends to be
temporary, however, and usually corrects itself when the body
rediscovers its hormonal balance.
The link between estrogen and hair loss can also be seen in women treated for cancer, when the ovarian function is destroyed, or in menopausal women whose ovaries are removed.
In either case, the body's estrogen levels will drop significantly (remember - the ovaries are the main 'producers' of estrogen).
supplemental hormones are offered, the menopause-like symptoms such as
hot flashes, skin thinning and hair loss will result.
And - as we mentioned earlier - the sudden drop in estrogen levels following pregnancy can trigger hair loss, although its usually the excess hair that was gained in pregnancy that's falling out, and the hair isn't actually any thinner than it was in pre-pregnancy days.
Source: Belgravia Centre
If your doctor suspects that your hair loss is caused by a lack of estrogen then (s)he may offer you supplementary estrogen - known as Hormone Replacement Therapy - either taken orally or applied topically (to the skin) as a gel or patch.
Some women are given the birth control pill to boost their estrogen levels.
That being said, estrogen supplementation is still somewhat controversial, with some sources pointing out that there are no controlled medical studies supporting its effectiveness, whilst others stating that...
"... estrogen deficiency as a cause of hair loss has not found its way into medical textbooks, but this does not stop it from happening."
Some women report seeing a big improvement in their hair loss once their estrogen levels are supplemented, others not so much.
But it's worth bearing in mind that different people react in different ways to supplementation based on all sorts of factors.
It's best not to decide upon YOUR plan of action by comparing yourself to others - rather, we recommend discussing the situation with your doctor or - even better - endocrinologist.
We also recommend ensuring that it really IS low estrogen that's causing your hair loss.
Later in this article we'll look at other ways in which estrogen and hair loss are connected... ways that may explain why supplementary estrogen doesn't work for everyone and may even make hair loss worse.
Certain foods are considered to be good sources of phytoestrogens - these are berries, seeds (flaxseeds in particular), grains, nuts, legumes, fruits and - above all - soy beans and soy products.
However, there are some concerns over a diet high in soy and this research article looks at the pros and cons of phytoestrogens, pointing out that they may have just as many harmful side effects and synthetic estrogens (more on those later in this article), yet are perceived to be somehow 'better' for us.
In particular, the research notes that soy may have unwanted effects on the developing child during pregnancy, so it's certainly not advisable to increase soy consumption if you're pregnant.
Our advice would be to maintain a HEALTHY diet and to try to eliminate as much stress from your life as possible (easier said than done, we know!).
But too much stress can really cause estrogen
levels to drop - as can smoking. Quitting smoking can boost those
estrogen levels AND improve your over all well-being.
Some doctors may automatically assume that it's LOW estrogen that's causing your hair loss, particularly if you're going through menopause.
Other experts, however, dispute this, pointing to an IMBALANCE of hormones as the possible cause of your thinning hair.
Our bodies produce both estrogen and progesterone during our childbearing years and these hormones work most effectively when balanced.
Progesterone plays a variety of roles in the human body and helps...
As we begin to approach menopause, the amount of progesterone we produce starts to drop, until it stops altogether AFTER menopause.
Estrogen drops too, but it's available from other sources AND our bodies continue making it to some extent outside the ovaries.
But very little progesterone is available from other sources and once our ovaries stop producing it, the balance between the estrogen and progesterone in our bodies becomes 'upset'.
Hair loss - plus a whole host of other typically menopausal symptoms - can be the result.
By assuming that your problem is caused by low estrogen - and attempting to boost levels by supplementing with EXTRA estrogen - you can find your hair loss problem gets even worse.
The imbalance between the estrogen and progesterone in your body would simply increase.
It's vitally important, therefore, to have your hormone levels tested to ensure that your hormones are balanced and that you don't have too MUCH estrogen in relation to progesterone... a situation known as estrogen dominance.
Just HOW do our hormones get so 'out of kilter' during menopause?
As described above, our progesterone and estrogen levels do not drop in 'harmony' - the progesterone levels drop faster and this leaves us with estrogen dominance.
And the reason that our estrogen levels do not drop as much is that they are available environmentally as well as in other tissues of our bodies besides our ovaries.
Of course, the ovaries are the primary source of estrogen prior to menopause, but AFTER menopause the fatty tissues of the body continue to produce estrogen.
What's more, phytoestrogens are obtained from plants (as discussed earlier) and xenoestrogens are obtained environmentally, from all sorts of products from plastics to nail polish, and also from pesticides, dairy products and hormonally supplemented red meat and chicken.
In fact, some sources suggest that there is so MUCH estrogen available environmentally that it's rare for estrogen deficiency to be responsible for menopausal symptoms like hair loss - it's far more likely for estrogen dominance to be the cause instead.
A full Hormone Panel test will look at all your hormonal levels and is a good way to establish if estrogen dominance is contributing to YOUR hair loss.
Interestingly, estrogen dominance can lead to the symptoms of thyroid problems, one of which is hair loss!
What happens is that the liver creates too much thyroid binding globulin (TBG) when estrogen levels are high.
TBG binds the thyroid hormones in the blood, meaning that they can't be absorbed as needed by the cells in the body that use them to support the body's metabolism.
The difficulty is that standard blood tests for thyroid conditions don't show up the problem.
The AMOUNT of thyroid hormone in the blood is just as it should be - but the hormone is being bound by the TBG.
The result is that the symptoms of thyroid problems start to appear.
TBG can. however, be detected with a blood test, so it's important to bear this in mind and ask to be tested if you feel this may be the problem you're experiencing.
We hope that you've found this information about estrogen and hair loss helpful - and that it's helped you more accurately pinpoint what's causing any problems you may be experiencing, in order to take that first step towards recovery!