is that people with alopecia areata have an excess of something called macrophage migration inhibitory factor. This is a hormone that causes a special class of circulating white blood cells to become “stuck” around hair follicles.1 These CD4+ cells secrete inflammatory hormones normally reserved for combating bacterial infections, and eventually stop growth of the follicle. Affected follicles become very small and grow no visible hair above the surface of the skin for months or years.
Alopecia areata most commonly affects the scalp, but any hair-bearing site can be affected by itself or together with the scalp. Most frequently, the condition starts in childhood. According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, approximately 1 in 50 people in the United States, or 4.5 million people in the United States alone, experiences this form of hair loss at some point in their lives.
Some people with alopecia areata develop only a few bare patches that regrow hair within a few
months to a year. Others have extensive patchy loss of hair, and some lose all the visible hair on the scalp (alopecia totalis) or even the entire body (alopecia universalis). In all cases of autoimmune hair loss, however, the hair regrows if it receives the appropriate signal from the immune system. Without a change in immune balance, however, hair does not regrow.
What are the natural interventions that help (sometimes) in this condition?
∆ 2–3 drops each of cedarwood, lavender, rosemary, and thyme mixed in a tablespoon of grape seed or jojoba oil and applied to bald areas of the scalp nightly.
∆ Khellin: 100 mg daily.
The easiest and most promising natural treatment for alopecia areata is a combination of essential oils. A clinical trial at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in Scotland enrolled 84 individuals who massaged either essential oils or a non-treatment oil into their scalps every night for 7 months. At the end of the study, 44 percent of the treatment group experienced new hair growth compared to only 15 percent in the control group. The treatment oil contained essential oils of cedarwood, lavender, rosemary, and thyme.
Khellin is a gentler alternative to treatment with prescription anthralin creams or ointments. Anthralin was originally a coal tar derivative. It is irritating to the skin to which it is applied, hands, and eyes. It also leaves a brown stain. Khellin is activated by exposure to ultraviolet light, so it is essential to expose the scalp to sun or a sun lamp for at least 30 minutes a day while taking the herb. Khellin can cause nausea and stomach upset, but this side effect usually subsides after the first week of treatment. About two-thirds of people who take the herb experience no unpleasant side effects of any kind.
What else can you do?
Acupuncture treatments sometimes produce dramatic improvements in alopecia universalis. In successful acupuncture treatment, hair usually returns the same way it fell out, in clumps. It may be necessary to take acupuncture treatments for 6 months to a year to get results. An argument could be made that hair might return on its own during that period, but acupuncture has been used to treat cases in which hair loss has been total for as long as 7 years.
Steroids such as cortisone are often effective but carry the risk of serious side effects, such as lowered immune resistance and weight gain. If you choose to take cortisone injections, a licorice extract called glycyrrhizin will slow the rate at which your body breaks down the cortisone, extending its healing effects but also increasing the risk of side effects.
Take 250–500 mg of glycyrrhizin 3 times per day. Do not use deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), since it does not enhance the effects of steroids. Discontinue the supplement if you observe slow healing of a cut or scrape or unexplained weight gain, or if you develop an infection. Do not take glycyrrhizin if you have high blood pressure.
Many doctors treat alopecia areata with minoxidil. An alternative to minoxidil is diphencyprone (DPC), which is also a chemical also used in developing film. Workers at Kodak found that it caused hair to sprout in unwanted places if they failed to wash after using it. While DCP is not a prescription drug, it is in no way a natural treatment, and applying it requires the use of protective garments and special ventilation under professional supervision.
The advantage of DCP is that hair does not fall out immediately when treatment is discontinued, as is the case with minoxidil. In alopecia universalis (total hair loss), DCP produces cosmetically acceptable results only about 17 percent of the time, but when hair loss is less than 50 percent, DCP is 100 percent effective. Hair typically begins to reappear after 3 months of treatment, but it is sometimes necessary to take the drug for as long as 2 years before hair regrowth occurs. When hair loss is less than 50 percent, hair restoration typically takes about 10 months. Side effects are common, including blistering (45 percent of users), freckling (12 percent), vitiligo (2 percent), and swollen lymph glands (2 percent). Hair that grows back during DCP treatment usually lasts 2–3 years before resumption of treatment is necessary. DCP must be applied weekly to be effective. It is available from dermatologists.
Several treatments attempt to change the immune balance of the scalp by inducing skin allergies, including topical applications of nickel sulfate or primula leaf oil. In this method, irritation to the skin is essential to stimulating hair growth. Small-scale studies suggest this method may help most people with alopecia, but dosages have not been established.
Zinc supplementation does not help most cases of alopecia areata. However, when alopecia follows extreme low-calorie diets or gastroplasty, a surgical shrinking of the stomach to treat obesity, zinc may be very helpful. In one study, all gastroplasty patients who had experienced hair loss regained their hair after taking 200 mg of zinc sulfate 3 times a day for 6 months. This dosage of zinc is potentially high enough to interfere with the immune system’s resistance to infection, so it is essential to treat infections promptly.