Hair Loss and Anorexia: A Sign of Greater Danger
by Jordan Murray, RD, CD
When we hear someone mention hair loss, we usually think of aging. Others may associate hair loss with chemotherapy or the compulsive hair pulling associated with trichotillomania. What most people would not normally associate hair loss with is anorexia nervosa, unless they treat patients with the disorder or have been affected by it personally. In reality, people of all genders and ages with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders commonly experience hair loss, including hair thinning and areas of balding.
So what causes the hair loss? When a person’s body is malnourished, such as during an eating disorder, the protein stores in their body become depleted. When this occurs, the body has to make sure that it takes care of essential functions (such as organ function and retaining muscle tissue) above all else. Our hair, which is made up of a protein called keratin, is not as essential to our body’s functioning. So, hair growth stops so the body can focus on keeping that person alive. Depending on a person’s age, genetic makeup, and other developmental factors, regular hair growth will most likely return to normal after a person maintains nutritional stabilization for six months or more.
When someone is experiencing hair loss associated with anorexia, there are usually plenty of co-occurring symptoms such as dehydration (which can lead to kidney failure), cold intolerance, fatigue, lightheadedness, and more. These are in addition to their likely significant weight loss. Hair loss can be a very distressing symptom for someone with anorexia to experience, but the true cause for concern is the high mortality rate among people with this disorder, which is between five and 10 percent . Eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than any other behavioral health disorder.
Oftentimes when someone reaches out for eating disorder treatment, his or her body is already dangerously malnourished and they are probably experiencing physical, emotional, and cognitive side effects. Hair loss might be one example of a physical side effect. If you notice that a family member or friend is avoiding meals, entire food groups, or social gatherings related to food—and maybe losing their hair—it may be a good idea to ask them about their relationship with food. Although an eating disorder is not always the cause, it’s best to express your concern for your loved one’s well-being and good health. If they do decide to seek professional eating disorder services, let them know that you will be a part of their support network both through treatment and beyond.
Although the possibility of hair loss is not as significant as many of the symptoms of anorexia, for some the symptom serves as motivation to seek treatment, change their eating behaviors, and rebuild their relationship with food and nutrition. Many individuals who struggle with anorexia base their self-worth off of their body image, but the reality is that malnutrition damages the body in numerous ways. Hair loss reflects the damage that has already happened on the inside of the body and can help someone with anorexia finally realize the true dangers of their eating habits.
1 Anorexia Nervosa | National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2016, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/anorexia-nervosa
About the author –
Jordan Murray, RD, CD, is a primary registered dietitian for adult males and females at the Eating Disorder Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital–Oconomowoc, a facility for residential eating disorder treatment. He has experience providing nutritional education and meal planning services in various levels of care, including inpatient and partial hospital programs at Rogers. Murray is a graduate of Viterbo University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics.