Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/22/2020
Hair loss can occur for a variety of reasons, from genetic and hormonal male pattern baldness to nutritional deficiencies such as a lack of iron.
Anemia is a medical condition in which the body has insufficient healthy red blood cells. Iron deficiency anemia is a specific type of anemia caused by the body not having enough iron. It’s the most common form of anemia and can occur as a result of a wide range of health issues, including an iron-deficient diet or certain digestive diseases.
Iron plays a key role in transporting oxygen and other nutrients in your blood. When your body doesn't have enough iron, you could experience a range of symptoms, including some level of hair loss.
Below, we’ve explained what iron-deficiency anemia is, how it can develop and the symptoms you may notice if you’re deficient in iron. We’ve also talked specifically about the effects it can have on your hair.
Finally, we’ve explained what you can do if you’re experiencing hair loss and think it could be due to iron-deficiency anemia.
Iron-deficiency anemia is a medical condition that can occur when your body doesn’t have enough iron.
Your body uses iron to create red blood cells, an essential element of your blood. Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen to the tissues that make up your body. They’re also responsible for facilitating the disposal of carbon dioxide through your lungs.
When your body doesn’t have enough iron, it’s significantly less efficient at transporting oxygen and supplying your tissue with nutrients.
This includes your hair calls, which may not get the nutrients they need for healthy growth if you have iron-deficiency anemia.
In general, iron-deficiency anemia is more common in women than in men. According to data published in American Family Physician, about two percent of adult men in the United States have iron-deficiency anemia, compared to nine to 20 percent of adult women.
Iron-deficiency anemia can cause a variety of symptoms. Symptoms normally start slowly and can become more intense over time. You may notice:
Difficulty thinking or concentrating on specific tasks
Feelings of weakness and tiredness, either during regular activities or exercise
If your iron-deficiency anemia is mild, you may only notice very mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. However, when iron-deficiency anemia becomes more severe, it may lead to symptoms such as:
Shortness of breath
Feelings of lightheadedness when standing
Inflammation and soreness that affects your tongue
Ulcers that develop in your mouth
Brittle fingernails and toenails
Blue tint to the sclera, or white part of your eyes
Unusually pale skin
Uncontrolled movement of your legs, particularly while sleeping
Pica, or a pattern of eating non-food items, such as ice
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider as soon as you can.
Iron-deficiency anemia tends to develop when your body doesn’t receive an adequate supply of iron. This can occur for several reasons:
Your diet doesn’t contain enough iron-rich foods. According to the National Institutes of Health, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron is 8mg per day for men 19 to 50 years old and 18mg per day for non-pregnant women aged 19 to fifty.
Your body isn’t able to absorb iron. Certain diseases and medical conditions, such as Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, gastric bypass surgery and use of certain antacids or antibiotics may affect your ability to absorb iron.
Your body loses iron and blood cells. A common cause of iron loss is bleeding. Some diseases, such as cancers that affect the bowels, colon, stomach or esophagus, as well as peptic ulcer disease, can cause internal bleeding and iron loss. Other factors that may cause bleeding include long-term use of ibuprofen, aspirin and/or medications to treat arthritis, as well as varices (enlarged veins) in the esophagus, which can develop in people with liver disease.
You’re losing blood for another reason. Injuries that cause blood loss may cause anemia to develop. In women, iron-deficiency anemia can also develop as a result of a long or heavy menstrual period. Other factors that may contribute to blood loss include receiving blood tests frequently or donating blood on a regular basis.
In some cases, iron-deficiency anemia can occur due to inflammation caused by certain medical conditions.
People with obesity or congestive heart failure may have a higher risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia. Being on dialysis for advanced kidney disease also places you at risk for iron deficiency anemia.
Hair loss is a known symptom of iron-deficiency anemia. Although research is limited in scope, several studies have found links between iron deficiency and hair loss, with most studies looking at iron-deficiency anemia and hair loss in women.
For example, one study from 2007 found that 59 percent of non-menopausal women affected by excessive levels of hair loss had low iron levels (less than 40 microg/L), compared to 48 percent of the remainder of the population.
A different study, which involved men and women with hair loss, found that women with female pattern hair loss typically had lower ferritin concentration (FC, the blood protein that contains iron) than women without hair loss.
The study also found that 22.7 percent of men with male pattern hair loss had ferritin levels below 70 µg/L. None of the men without hair loss that took part in the study had a ferritin concentration below this level.
Despite these findings, it’s important to point out that there isn’t a huge amount of research into the relationship between iron deficiency on hair loss.
While the studies mentioned above appear to show a link, some studies have also reached the opposite conclusion.
For example, a detailed study from 2008 concluded that the role of iron in female pattern hair loss in otherwise healthy women is likely overestimated.
In short, while some studies show a link between iron and hair loss, others don’t. There’s also a very limited amount of research available on iron-deficiency anemia and male hair loss, with the majority of studies looking specifically at hair loss in women.
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Treating hair loss from iron-deficiency anemia usually involves treating the cause of your iron deficiency. Unlike male pattern baldness, hair loss from iron-deficiency anemia isn’t related to hormones like DHT, meaning your hair is likely to grow back following treatment.
If you’ve noticed hair loss and think that iron-deficiency anemia could be the cause, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider.
Iron-deficiency anemia is usually easy to diagnose with a blood test. Your healthcare provider may perform a physical exam to look for symptoms.
If they think you may have iron-deficiency anemia, you may need to complete a blood test.
Several blood tests can reveal iron-deficiency anemia, including a complete blood count (CBC), iron test, ferritin measure and others. Your healthcare provider will analyze your results and let you know whether or not you’ll need to take further action.
If you have an iron deficiency, your healthcare provider may recommend one or several different treatments. Common treatments for iron-deficiency anemia include:
Supplements containing iron. You may need to take iron supplements daily to supply your body with additional iron. These may help to restore your iron to healthy levels over the course of several months.
Medical procedures. Several medical procedures are used to increase iron levels and treat iron-deficiency anemia. Your healthcare provider may suggest intravenous (IV) iron infusions or red blood cell transfusions to increase your iron and red blood cell count.
Surgery. If your iron deficiency is caused by an internal health issue, such as a disease or injury to your digestive tract, you may need to undergo surgery.
If your iron-deficiency anemia is caused by another health issue, such as a problem absorbing iron, treating the underlying condition might help your body to absorb iron more effectively and restore your iron levels over time.
Sometimes, making changes to your habits and lifestyle can help you to take in more iron and maintain healthy iron levels naturally. Try to:
Eat iron-rich foods. Many foods contain iron. If you’re deficient in iron, try to increase your consumption of lean red meat, salmon, tofu, eggs, fried beans or fruits, peas, dark green leafy vegetables and iron-fortified cereals and breads.
Eat foods with vitamin C. Foods like strawberries, tomatoes, oranges and others are rich in vitamin C and may help your body to absorb iron more effectively.
Try to avoid black tea. Black tea contains polyphenols which may affect your ability to absorb iron. For example, a study from 2017 found that drinking tea at the same time as a meal caused a significant reduction in nonheme iron absorption. If you’re a tea enthusiast, try to avoid drinking black tea, or make an effort to reduce the amount you drink. Alternatively, drink tea between meals — not with your meal.
Does black tea offer any benefits for hair? You can read our blog to find out.
Because iron-deficiency anemia hair loss isn’t hormonal, there’s no evidence that medications like finasteride, which work by inhibiting hair loss-related hormones, are effective at preventing or reversing it.
Minoxidil, a topical medication for enhancing hair growth, may help you to regrow hair after you treat the underlying cause of your iron-deficiency anemia. However, there’s no specific research into the effects of minoxidil for this type of hair loss.
Overall, the best approach is to treat the underlying cause of your iron deficiency, whether it’s a nutritional deficiency, a medical condition or a lifestyle-related factor.
Although research into the effects of iron-deficiency anemia on hair loss is limited, especially in men, some studies have found a link between low iron levels and pattern hair loss.
If you’re deficient in iron, it’s important that you get treated. Talk to your healthcare provider to schedule a blood test to check your iron levels. If you’re deficient, a variety of treatments, from iron supplements to lifestyle changes, can help to bring your iron levels up to normal.