Top 7 things body hair can tell about your health

Humans have body hairs unevenly distributed in different parts of the body, such as the eyebrow, scalp, and chin. But, there is a lot to know about your body hair, particularly how it is linked to your health.

A man with hairs falling off from his head (alopecia)

The hair you see on the surface of your body is far more complex than it appears. Aside from contributing to male and female appearance, it also helps transmit sensory information. 

The development of body hair starts right from the fetal stage. By the 22nd week of pregnancy, a fetus already has all of its hair follicles formed. At that stage, about 5 million hair follicles are dispersed all over the body, with the scalp having about one-fifth (one million) of the hair follicles.

However, while the body can generate new cells as we grow older, it does not generate new hair follicles. This means the number of hair follicles developed during the early stages of life is the number the body will retain till old age.

Hair follicles are the tunnel-shaped structure in the outer layer of the skin (epidermis), where hairs start growing from. A hair follicle anchors each hair strand to the skin. It consists of the hair bulb, which is the base of the hair follicle.

Like the toe and fingernails, there are many things your body hair can tell about your health. This article will discuss the link between body hair and health.

What your body hair can tell about the state of your health

If you pay attention to your body, you might realize that your hair sometimes changes. It could be the hairs on your scalp getting thinner or brittle, unwelcomed hairs growing on certain parts of your body, or stray hairs growing outside your eyebrow line. 

Some of these hair changes are not normal and may be an indication that something is wrong with your health. So how do your body hair, and health relate? Below are some things your body hair can tell you about your health.

1. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

Your hair can give signs of STD

One thing your body hair can tell you about your health is that you may have an STD. You might be surprised to know that contracting a sexually transmitted infection or disease can lead to loss of body hair. 

Some STIs such as syphilis can cause a “patchy hair loss”. If you notice an abnormal body hair loss or patchy scalp accompanied by other symptoms like rashes and sore throat, you should see your doctor for a proper diagnosis. 

Aside from being an atypical symptom of STDs, hair loss can also be a side effect of some medications used for treating those conditions. E.g., hair thinning and alopecia are some of the adverse effects of Zovirax (Acyclovir), a medicine used for treating genital herpes.

2. Autoimmune disease

If you notice an abnormal hair loss in any part of your body, It could be a case of autoimmune disease. 

An autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system cannot differentiate between its own body cells and foreign substances. In such a case, the immune system mistakes part of your body, e.g. your skin, as a foreign agent and launches an article against it.

The loss of body hair due to autoimmune disease is known as alopecia. It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicles, leading to the loss of a significant amount of hair. 

People with alopecia may suddenly lose hair all over their bodies. However, some may lose the hairs gradually or in specific areas of the body. There are rare cases where a person may lose the entire hair on their scalp (known as alopecia areata totalis) or on all parts of their body (known as alopecia areata universalis). 

Individuals with a family medical history of autoimmune disorders like lupus erythematosus and thyroid diseases have higher chances of developing alopecia. 

Unfortunately, alopecia areata cannot be cured; however, it is possible to have hair regrowth for some people. Some medical treatment options can also help treat alopecia areata

3. A genetic disorder

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Some people develop hair abnormalities from birth. For instance, some people never grow hair right from birth, e.g., people with hypotrichosis simplex.

According to the National Organisation for Rare Diseases, hypotrichosis simplex is “a rare form of hereditary hair loss without other abnormalities. 

The National Cancer Institute described hypotrichosis as a rare condition in which little or no hair grows on the head, on the eyebrows, the tip of the eyelids, and other body parts. This autosomal recessive disorder usually appears at birth and remains throughout a person’s lifetime. 

There are other variations of these congenital hair disorders. For instance, in the case of congenital atrichia, people born with the condition can have a head full of hair at birth but will lose all their hair in early childhood. 

Unfortunately, treating these congenital hair problems is difficult. Some hypotrichosis conditions have no known treatment. 

4. Thyroid disorder

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The activity of the thyroid gland can affect your hair. The thyroid gland produces the thyroid hormone, which plays a vital role in the human body's metabolism, development, and growth. It is located in the front of the neck.

Hyperthyroidism is when the thyroid gland produces excess thyroid hormone, while hypothyroidism occurs when it does not produce enough of the hormone. Both conditions can cause hair brittleness and thinning of hair on the scalp and/or body.

Hair loss alongside other symptoms like unexplainable weight loss or weight gain, muscle weakness, fatigue, and dry skin calls for concerns. You should consider seeing a medical professional in such a case. If a thyroid disorder is suspected, the doctor might order thyroid tests to confirm it. 

5. Adrenal gland disorder

Two parts of the adrenal gland- the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla- produce different hormones. 

The adrenal cortex produces cortisol and the sex hormones (estrogen, androgens, and aldosterone), while the adrenal medulla produces adrenaline and noradrenaline. When the adrenal gland is hyperactive, it can produce any of these hormones in excess.

Androgens like testosterone are male sex hormones. However, there are cases where a woman has this hormone in excess. This can cause excess hair on the body and face. In some cases, it can cause baldness.

Another example of adrenal gland disorder is Cushing syndrome. Cushing syndrome is characterized by excess production of cortisol hormone. It can also be caused by oral corticosteroid medicine.

Some of the common side effects of Cushing Syndrome include thinning skin, weight gain, the growth of visible thick hair on the face, and the growth of excess thick hair on the body. 

6. Nutrient deficiency

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Your body hair and health are linked such that your body hairs can tell when your body is not getting enough macro and micronutrients. One of the nutrients that are essential for your hair growth is iron. 

Iron is a component of hemoglobin, the protein that gives blood its red pigmentation. Hemoglobin is contained in red blood cells and is responsible for carrying the oxygen that is distributed to all parts of the body via the blood. 

Remember that oxygen is needed to restore and regenerate cells, including those that induce hair growth. Thus, iron deficiency or anemia can cause hair loss or stunted hair growth. Fortunately, this problem can be solved by eating iron-rich diets like spinach, liver, soybean, peas, and beans. 

Also, a deficiency of fatty acids can cause hair loss. A person with a fatty acid deficiency may experience thinning of the scalp hair and eyebrow hair. 

In the same vein, a lack of biotin, protein, selenium, or zinc can cause alopecia or thinning of hair. You must eat a balanced meal containing all the necessary nutrients. You can also augment your food by consuming protein, fatty acids, vitamins and mineral supplements.

7. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and menopause

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Hormones control a lot of things in the body, including hair growth. A sudden surge in the male or female sex hormones can cause excess gain or loss of body hair. 

Hirsutism is one common symptom that presents with excess hair growth on a woman’s body. It is caused by the presence of excess male hormones in the body. One female condition that presents with hirsutism is polycystic ovarian syndrome. 

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that occurs in women of reproductive age, characterized by an imbalance in reproductive hormones. Aside from hirsutism, PCOS can also cause thinning of hair. 

Hormonal changes can also impact even women of non-productive age. When women hit menopause, they experience different symptoms which can impact their life. One of the ways menopause can affect women is that it can cause changes in their scalp, body, and facial hairs. 

During menopause, the female hormone estrogen reduces while testosterone increases. This hormonal imbalance can cause undesirable effects, including the growth of facial hairs.

Takeaway

You can see that your body hair and health status are linked. In some cases, a slight change in hair may not mean something serious is wrong with your health but, in a good number of cases, it could mean you have a disorder or a deficiency. 

It will be best to pay attention to your body hair because it may be telling you something you do not know about your health. Always see your doctor if you notice something abnormal about your body. 

References

  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. (n.d.). Hair Loss Types: Alopecia Areata Causes.  
  2. John Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Overactive adrenal glands/Cushing’s syndrome.
  3. National Organisation for Rare Diseases (n.d.). NIH GARD information: Hypotrichosis simplex.
  4. Sharma, Ashok et al. “Alopecia following oral acyclovir for the treatment of herpes simplex keratitis.Middle East African journal of ophthalmology vol. 21,1 (2014): 95-7.