Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/20/2021
Are you getting enough oysters, liver, lentils, or white beans in your diet? These foods are rich sources of iron, a nutrient your body relies on to function.
Iron is a mineral that takes on many roles in your well-being. Perhaps its most important responsibility is the production of hemoglobin in the red blood cells.
These cells carry oxygen through blood produced from the lungs. The oxygen is then taken to all parts of the body — the hair follicles included.
Without a sufficient amount of iron, your body may develop iron deficiency, which can worsen to become iron deficiency anemia. While this condition affects several parts of the body, it may also lead to hair loss.
We'll be examining the causes of iron deficiency, how insufficient iron affects hair loss, and the various ways to treat this condition.
Iron deficiency occurs when your body has insufficient amounts of the mineral, iron.
When this happens, your red blood cells become smaller and contain reduced amounts of hemoglobin.
This affects the amount of oxygen your cells will receive from the blood.
Likewise, with iron having a strong influence on immunity, a deficiency of this nutrient has been known to affect immune function.
DNA synthesis is also affected when your body has insufficient amounts of iron. This process is a core function of the mineral.
Even your metabolism isn’t spared. With iron as a key factor in promoting metabolic activity, links have been drawn between obesity and an iron shortage in your body.
Iron deficiency is the most common form of malnutrition, approximately 10 million people are affected in the United States, this includes around five million people who have iron-deficiency anemia.
This condition may be caused by gastrointestinal conditions like gastric ulcer and Mallory-Weiss syndrome, malnutrition and malabsorption. Pregnant and lactating women are also at risk of this deficiency. It is widely accepted to be the most prevalent cause of anemia the world over.
If you start to run low on iron, there's a high chance your deficiency will go unnoticed. This is because symptoms are not immediately noticeable.
Your body simply reaches into iron reserves in the muscles, spleen, liver, and bone marrow for your needs.
You will typically begin to show symptoms of iron deficiency after the condition has regressed into iron deficiency anemia.
In such instances, the following symptoms may be observed:
Weakness: because your body has less hemoglobin to supply oxygen to cells and tissues, these structures have reduced energy to carry out their duties.
Also, your heart will be required to work harder in order to supply enough oxygen-rich blood around your body. This can disrupt your ability to carry out everyday tasks.
Problems with concentration and memory: the brain is largely dependent on oxygen to function.
A shortage to its supply due to iron deficiency can lead to cognitive challenges. These include poor memory and concentration. Iron deficiency has also been linked to neurological conditions like dementia.
Compromised immunity: your body’s iron stores are an important first line of defense against harmful outsiders. When you're low on this nutrient, immunity is suppressed, leaving you open to infections.
Other symptoms of iron deficiency include pale skin, which can occur when hemoglobin levels in the blood drop. Low iron intake may also cause shortness of breath, and a quickened heart rate.
Notably, however, you may notice that you have an iron deficiency when you begin to suffer hair loss.
Even though there is some agreement that iron deficiency leads to hair loss, there is yet to be a consensus on how this condition may lead to the loss of hair.
In some circles, it is believed that hair follicles like other human cells, are dependent on oxygen supplied by hemoglobin in the red blood cells. You'll remember that iron plays a role in the production of this protein.
When there is a deficiency, it could follow that hair follicles will lack sufficient oxygen, an important component for their growth. This could lead to hair loss.
This school of thought may be supported by the fact that iron is a major component of ribonucleotide reductase, an enzyme your cells require to grow properly.
There is also the assertion that iron may regulate certain hair cells like keratinocytes. A deficiency could contribute to the poor functioning of these cells, leading to hair loss.
Yet another section of the medical community believes that iron deficiency could be linked to hair loss conditions like alopecia areata, telogen effluvium and male/female pattern hair loss.
On the other side of the divide, however, are separate schools of thought that don't believe hair loss has any links to iron deficiency.
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In a study to determine the relationship between iron and hair loss — men with male pattern hair loss (MPHL), together with pre and post-menopausal women experiencing female pattern hair loss (FPHL) were observed.
The study subjects were screened for serum ferritin (a protein that stores iron), iron and total iron-binding capacity. There were also control groups in the study.
Of the patients with MPHL, 22.7 percent showed lower ferritin levels when compared with healthy control subjects of the same age in the study.
Premenopausal women with FPHL also had much lower serum levels compared with the healthy control subjects.
This may be linked to the loss of blood and iron during menstrual periods, a known link to iron deficiency.
They also showed much lower ferretin levels when compared with postmenopausal women with FPHL.
However, postmenopausal women in this study didn't have significantly lower levels of ferretin when compared to normal controls.
In another study to determine the link between iron deficiency and telogen effluvium, 72 menstruating women with chronic telogen effluvium and 30 members of a control group were interviewed and examined.
Fifty out of the 72 subjects were found to have significantly lower ferritin levels, when compared to the eight control subjects who also showed low ferritin levels.
The 50 patients were given iron supplements to be used daily for four months. Twenty-one reported great improvement in their hair growth, 15 saw some improvement, but 14 saw no change in hair growth.
However, there were 22 subjects with chronic telogen effluvium that displayed normal ferritin levels.
These subjects weren't given iron. Among them, one patient reported great improvement in hair growth, nine some improvement while 12 reported no improvement at all.
A study carried out to discover the association between iron and alopecia areata didn’t find enough links between the conditions.
This study was carried out for a year on 23 females and 29 males with alopecia areata. The subjects were aged between three and 76 years old.
At the end of it, the differences between the total iron binding capacity levels in the patients and control group was not statistically significant.
Total iron binding capacity or TIBC refers to the blood’s ability to attach to iron and transport the nutrient around the body.
While there was some evidence that iron could be a triggering factor in hair loss, it was suggested that iron deficiency could affect scalp hairs where they could still be regrown — this wasn’t enough to show a link between iron deficiency and alopecia areata.
A study to compare zinc, copper, and iron content in the hair of 16 women with alopecia areata and 27 female control subjects found no significant differences between iron levels in both groups. There were also no notable differences in zinc and copper levels.
There is still a divide on the effects of iron on hair loss, especially with limited studies on the subject, most of which are focused on women. More research is necessary to determine the impact iron deficiency may have to the hair.
If you're experiencing hair loss and suspect that iron deficiency may be to blame, the first course of action should be to meet with your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and possible treatment options.
Iron deficiency anemia may be diagnosed using blood tests like a complete blood count, ferritin measure, peripheral smear and iron test.
Questions on your risk factors may be asked to determine the likelihood of your suspicions. Your healthcare provider may also ask that a physical exam be carried out.
Treatment could require iron supplements called iron pills or oral iron. You may need to take these supplements several times a day to increase your body's supply of the mineral. It will take around three to six months to replenish your iron stores.
This option is however only suitable for people with iron deficiency anemia. Excess iron can damage organs otherwise.
Where this measure fails to increase your iron levels, you may receive intravenous iron, red blood cell transfusions or an upper endoscopy or colonoscopy to stop the bleeding, if that is cause of your iron deficiency.
Lifestyle changes like increasing your daily intake of foods high in iron and vitamin C can help to meet your daily recommended iron levels.
Men should consume 16.3-18.2 mg of iron per day. Women older than 19 are expected to have 12.6-13.5mg of iron from their foods on a daily basis. From supplements, men are expected to take 19.3-20.5 mg/day.
Iron is an important nutrient needed in the right amounts for your wellbeing.
Where your iron intake is low, this could cause adverse effects, one of which may be hair loss.
If you are experiencing hair loss and suspect that iron deficiency could be to blame, visit a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment.