What Your Hair Says About Your Health

Everything from stress to nutrition to hormones can impact whether your strands are thick and shiny or thin and brittle. Check out these telltale clues that your tresses can give you about your overall well-being. By Holly Corbett, REDBOOK.

Major shedding
What it means: The average woman may lose as many as 100 hairs a day, but if you suddenly notice fistfuls coming loose when you brush or piles on your pillow, it may be a clue that you have a hormonal imbalance called PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome. "PCOS can trigger your ovaries to produce too many androgens, or male sex hormones, and contribute to hair thinning or hair loss," says Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips, a trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Clinic in New York City. Other signs of PCOS include stubborn belly fat, facial hair, acne, and irregular periods.

The fix: As many as one in 15 women may have some degree of PCOS, but losing weight by eating whole, unprocessed foods and exercising for at least 30 minutes a day can balance hormones and lessen symptoms. Taking the pill also helps regulate your period. As for your hair, it's a myth that skipping shampooing will prevent you from losing more. "Your scalp has already been programmed to lose those strands," says Phillips. "Be sure to keep washing regularly so you feel good and maintain a healthy scalp."

Fine, limp texture
What it means: If your once-thick locks morph into thin strands, it could be a sign of hypothyroidism, a condition by which the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough hormones, causing your metabolism to slow down. "The thyroid is the master gland that regulates your endocrine system and it also impacts how hair is formed," says Phillips. Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include unexplained weight gain, being cold all the time, and feeling fatigue despite getting adequate sleep.

The fix: First thing's first: see your doc. She or he will give you a TSH test and - if diagnosed with hypothyroidism - you may have to take a pill such as Synthroid. As for keeping your strands thick, avoid getting highlights if you color your hair. "Highlights over color cause damage and compromise the overall density by increasing the likelihood of breakage," says Phillips.

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Hair that falls out only in patches

What it means: Losing hair in dime- and quarter-sized patches could be what's known as alopecia aratha. "It's thought to be an autoimmune condition where your immune system attacks your body's own healthy cells and may be triggered by major life events such as a pregnancy or illness," says Phillips. "Patches may fill in and regrow, and then another bald patch can show up."

The fix: "It's important to consult with your doctor to pinpoint whether or not you have an underlying immune disorder, and cortisone shots could help," says Phillips. "It may also just be your body's individual response to stress, similar to how some people break out in hives on their skin." If stress seems to be the cause, better manage your anxiety by pinpointing your specific triggers and avoiding them, as well as trying a mindfulness-based exercise routine such as yoga or tai chi.

Going gray early
What it means: Genetics are mostly to blame for those white hairs sprouting all over your head, and usually aren't indicative of an underlying health problem, says Phillips. However, if you have a lot of grays before age 35, some studies suggest you might be short on vitamin B12 and folic acid. Researchers discovered that folic acid, vitamin B12 and sun exposure could help re-pigment patches of both skin and hair that stopped producing melanin, according to a study by the Department of Dermatology at University Hospital in Uppsala, Sweden.

The fix: To get more vitamin B12, fill up on lean red meat, shellfish, eggs, poultry, and milk. For folic acid, increase your intake of leafy greens, beans, and fortified grains. To cover grays without harsh chemicals, try a formula by a company such as Light Mountain Natural that uses natural botanicals like henna instead of ammonia, formaldehyde, and other potentially harmful ingredients.

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Dry, flaky scalp
What it means: Dandruff can be seriously embarrassing - it's definitely not an accessory you want to wear with a little black dress during the holidays. Besides using too many products, those little white flakes can also be the result of stress and anxiety, says Phillips.

The Fix: Try adding more fish to your dish - such as salmon and sardines - to up your levels of omega-3 fatty acids. This healthy fat not only helps keep skin and hair supple, but researchers have shown that people with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are least likely to report symptoms of depression, and report having an overall more positive outlook. Also try an exfoliating scalp mask to slough off dead cells and moisturize skin. "Think about your scalp the way you think about your skin because it's the base for your hair follicles to grow out. You want to moisturize it and soothe inflammation," says Phillips.

Strands that break off easily
What it means: Your hair is made of a protein called keratin, and a lack of protein in your diet can weaken tresses to the point that they snap. Vegans or vegetarians may be especially at-risk since meats are one of the most common sources of protein. If you're certain you're getting enough protein, the damage may be caused by heat and overstyling.

The fix:
If you're eating an 1800-calorie-a-day diet, aim to get at least 68 grams of protein to help fortify strands. An example of an easy swap to up your intake includes trading a six-inch pancake sans butter or syrup (5 grams protein, 175 calories) for 1 cup low-fat plain yogurt with 1/2 cup apricots (13 grams protein, 186 calories). "To prevent weakening the cuticle and further breakage, turn the heat setting down to medium on your styling tools," says Phillips. "Also try cutting two minutes off of your usual styling time, because it usually doesn't change the overall look of your hair but can potentially lessen cumulative damage that makes strands more fragile."

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