Patients often ask me what it means when they notice their hair falling out at an increased rate. Like most symptoms, in Chinese medicine, it does mean something. Head hair is seen primarily as a manifestation of kidney essence and a reflection of blood. Some ancient texts refer to the hair as a “surplus of blood,” as blood is thought to bring nourishment to the hair. As people age, their kidney energy wanes, which is normal and expected. Therefore, some changes in hair- like graying and thinning- are not considered worrisome in the elderly. However, if a person prematurely grays, or has unusually or suddenly thinning hair, this may indicate an underlying imbalance. The color, vitality and shine of a person’s hair also reflects their state of health. Brittle, dry or dull hair that has no luster may reflect a lung qi deficiency as well, as the lungs are thought to help disperse fluids and moisture throughout the body.
Male pattern baldness (or androgenic alopecia) usually begins with a receding hairline and progresses through the crown of the head. It typically occurs with age beginning anywhere from puberty through the 40s or 50s and has both a genetic and hormonal predisposition. (There is also a female pattern baldness, in which a more general thinning occurs with age.) The cause is still unclear (likely due to an inherited follicular sensitivity to dihydrotestosterone (DHT)), but the hairloss is harmless and permanent. The follicles which typically go through three phases (growth, dormancy, shedding), experience a shortened anagen or growth phase, and the follicles shrink. In general, people shed approximately 100 hairs per day (this varies from person to person) and those lost must be replaced by new hair growth. In male pattern baldness, the follicles remain dormant, so lost hair is never replaced. If new growth is slow, or hair loss increases, a person may notice more shed hair in the shower drain after shampooing, or if a woman uses a hairband, it may feel much looser than prior because there is less hair to hold.
If a patient presents with thinning hair that is not in the realm of natural male pattern baldness, OR if they are young and prematurely graying, I consider other signs in their health and history. Coinciding symptoms like a pale tongue, pallor, fatigue, dizziness, cold intolerance, palpitations, skin conditions, infertility, tinnitus or hearing problems, tooth loss, memory loss, or low back pain may help pinpoint kidney and/or blood deficiencies. Unusual hair loss, thinning or lusterless hair can result from many different medical issues, ranging from dietary deficiencies, autoimmune diseases, extreme stress and hormonal imbalances. It can also be a result of certain medication or skin infections like ringworm. It is always a good idea to mention unexpected hair changes to your doctor, especially if they are sudden, extreme or coinciding with other troubling symptoms.
When I treat cases of thinning hair, I use acupuncture needles on the scalp in the affected area. For general thinning, the needles placed superficially throughout the area increase blood flow locally and constitutional points to tonify blood and kidney essence on the body impact the underlying cause. For a specific patch of baldness, needles inserted at an angle from the outer edge towards the middle of the affected area help target the blood flow. A special needle called the “Seven Star Needle” can be used to tap the thinning area. It is a wand with several short needles on one end that can be held by the handle and used to tap the bald spot to elicit blood flow. It pinches a bit and draws blood, so I prefer the direct needle method along with constitutional points.