Noticing significant hair loss or thinning hair? Low iron could be a culprit. Why? Iron is used for many different functions when it comes to hair replication & growth.
First, they’ve discovered genes that regulate the region of your hair follicle that houses stem cells. When your hair falls out, your hair follicle kicks these stem cells into gear and has them create a new hair shaft!
Scientists also found that iron upregulates (increases the rate of) these genes—basically, they promote new hair to be grown through stem cells.
So, without enough iron, it’s thought that the genes may take a hiatus from creating new hair shafts or just slows the process down.
Second, iron is essential for the ability of your red blood cells to bring oxygen to your tissues. You can imagine life without oxygen: you would die (so really, not life at all).
Well, it’s the same with your hair. If you don’t have enough iron to oxygenate tissues/organs such as your brain, heart and liver, your body isn’t going to preferentially send oxygenated RBCs to your scalp to create new hair follicles.
This lack of oxygen to your scalp essentially suffocates the hair follicle and causes it to die. That ‘dead’ hair may not shed right away—this ‘shedding’ phase of hair loss can last anywhere from 2-5 months. That means that the hair you’re shedding today could have ‘died’ 2 months ago.
It’s also what makes hair loss so tricky. It’s not usually a process that started the day you noticed hair loss. Plus, iron deficiency is often undiagnosed for most patients for months or years before they start showing symptoms.
Sound like you? Book an appointment with one of our doctors now to get support for your low iron levels.
So, what can you do about it? If hair loss is a concern, start with the labs (we love labs here at MIMC).
Labs to Assess Iron Levels
There are three labs we use to assess low iron levels: ferritin, iron, and CBC.
- Ferritin is storage iron. When your body needs freely floating iron, it will pull from stores to replenish its stash. You’ll see this marker become depleted before your red blood cells change (CBC). We focus a lot of our attention on this marker because we try to prevent iron deficiency.
- Iron total. This is total iron you have available to use. It can give us a good idea of where you are on the spectrum that is iron deficiency.
- CBC. This measures your red blood cells and their size shale and color. When you become depleted in iron over a long period of time, your blood cells become pale and small.
When assessing these, it’s more than just the numbers on the page—it’s how you, the human, feel with these numbers. Iron is required for so many different processes that if you’re even trending towards deficiency, it can cause significant symptoms.
Iron Supplementation Options for Hair Loss
When it comes to supplementing iron, you have a few options.
Increase Your Food-Based Iron Intake
Eating your iron can be a way to help boost your low iron levels. Add a few of these into your meal plan to support your system.
- Animal sources of iron: grass-fed beef, chicken liver, pacific oysters, clams, tuna, mussels.
- Plant sources of iron: prunes, spinach, lentils, soybeans, sesame seeds, garbanzo beans, lima beans, olives, navy beans, kidney beans, tofu, Swiss chard, cashews, hazelnuts, cumin, parsley, turmeric.
- Consuming vitamin C rich foods will help increase the absorption of plant based iron.
Our favorite form of oral iron is iron glycinate (aka iron bisglycinate or chelated iron). This highly absorbable form of iron helps to cut down on side effects and tends to be non-constipating. It’s also often well-tolerated; however orally supplementing iron might not be useful, depending on how severe your deficiency is or if you’re noticing side effects from therapeutic dosing. Check with your doctor before supplementing to make sure this is the best option for you.
IV Iron Infusion
For patients where oral iron supplementation is causing nausea, stomach pain, constipation (or other side effects!), we generally recommend iron infusions. Also, if your serum ferritin (see above for details on this lab test) is lower than 30, intravenous iron may be a better solution for you simply because it will take a LONG time of iron supplementation to get your ferritin levels back to normal.
With intravenous iron, your red blood cells are better oxygenated and allow your tissues to have more oxygen and nutrients within just a few weeks.
Regardless of the type of iron supplementation that you choose, none of them are a quick fix for hair loss—your body has to take the iron and go off to create something else from it that helps stop future loss and promotes more hair growth.
Hair loss can be a complicated symptom to diagnose its root cause, but with some patience, persistence, and trying to calm stress hormones (because losing hair is SCARY & stress hormones are only going to make it worse!), you can find your way forward.
If this sounds like you, and you’re looking for holistic support solutions and personalized medical treatment, reach out. We’re here for you.
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.