Alopecia is the unexpected experience of hair loss leaving the skin bald. There is generally no antecedent of associated inflammation or symptoms. It is a chronic condition which may occur at any age. Sometimes the condition may spontaneous resolve. Often there are relapses. It can be of great concern to patients for cosmetic and psychological reasons.

Common forms of alopecia

The three most common forms of alopecia are:

  • alopecia areata: hair loss is confined to scalp in well circumscribed round or oval patches about the size of a coin. The scalp is bald and shiny. There may be no associated symptoms. It may be unexpected and only noticed incidentally;
  • alopecia totalis: hair loss is disseminated across the scalp. There are several patches. A severe case affects the entire scalp;
  • alopecia universalis: hair loss is experienced all over the body including the eyebrows and axilla.

Hair growth cycles

To understand alopecia we must familiarise ourselves with the hair growth cycles. There are three hair growth cycles. First is the long growing phase (anagen) then the brief transitional apoptotic phase (catagen) and finally the short resting phase (telogen). At the end of the resting phase the hair falls out (exogen), and a new one begins to grow. The cycle then repeats. Approximately 100 scalp hairs reach the end of the resting phase each day and fall out. If significantly more then 100 are lost in one day over a period of time then clinical hair loss (telogen effluvium) may occur. If the growing phase is disrupted causing loss of anagen hairs then anagen effluvium occurs.

Hair loss may be caused by many things. It may be caused by drugs such as chemotherapy agents, infection and systemic illnesses (including nutritional deficiencies, endocrine disorders and illness’s that cause high fever). Less common causes include primary hair shaft abnormalities, dermatological conditions and autoimmune diseases.

How does Chinese medicine view alopecia?

Chinese medicine attributes alopecia to three major causes. The first is insufficiency of blood which results in a failure to nourish the superficies so hair can not be maintained. The second is severe emotional distress, liver qi stagnation (stress), excessive fatigue, excessive stress on the heart and spleen and qi stagnation with blood stasis resulting in qi and blood not being able to rise and nourish hair. The third is liver and kidney deficiency which leads to deficiency of essence and blood resulting in the hair being malnourished and falling out.

How can Chinese medicine help?

For sufferers of alopecia Chinese medicine can be of great benefit. Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, diet modifications and sometimes a topical application will be used to treat the patient. The objective to treatment is to improve all signs and symptoms, correct imbalance, adjust the immune system and rectify the patients body increasing energy and blood. Treatment aims to stop hair loss, improve hair growth and lessen or omit the chances of regression. Some people may experience immediate improvement whereas some may not see anything for a while. This is dependant on a large amount of factors including length of complaint, resistance of the condition, the patients underlying constitution and even patient compliance. Chinese medicine can be used to treat alopecia alone however patients often combine both Western medicine treatments with Chinese medicine treatments to improve their chances of recovering faster.

Dietary suggestions for sufferers of alopecia

General diet suggestions for those with alopecia is to avoid hot and heating foods, and to try and build blood and energy. Very spicy foods such as chilli are to be avoided as are caffeine drinks and alcohol. Avoid drugs, food colouring, preservatives and sugar. Try eating more cooling and liver calming foods such as plums, radish, Chinese leeks, celery, brown seaweed and cucumber. Encourage the free flow of qi by foods that are mild and acrid such as ginger, garlic, pepper, kohlrabi and leeks. Beware though, do not eat too much of these as the can actually exacerbate the problem. Try and include more “yin” foods in your diet such as dairy products, fruit (especially citrus fruits and tropical fruits such as bananas), mineral water, tomato and wheat.

When preparing your food avoid deep frying, grilling, broiling or barbecuing your foods. These methods strongly produce yang energy rendering the food too hot. Baking may be used in moderation as it is a much gentler form of a yang producing method. The one time you may use alcohol is if you cook with it. Alcohol warms food, but it can also loosen emotional blockage and raise any downbearing qi. It also promotes qi and blood circulation. Stir frying places food in very high heat for a very short time. This allows food to retain their yin qualities on the inside and surrounds the food with a strong yang energy. If you like frying your foods, then this type of frying is best. Steaming food is termed a neutral form of cooking. It neither makes food hot nor cold, and is a useful form of cooking for those not wanting to alter the thermal properties of their food. Boiling or simmering food has a direct relationship when it comes to adding warmth. The longer it is left to boil or simmer the greater the warming potential. However, this type of yang production is very beneficial for those suffering from qi and yin deficiency as alot of alopecia sufferers are. The longer the boiling, the more nourishing the food becomes. This is why in cold parts of the world stews are an integral part of diet.

Alopecia can be highly treatable. It does take commitment from yourself the patient and your Chinese medical practitioner, but the end result is increased hair growth, stronger hair and a much stronger and healthier you.