Hair loss itself is not uncommon – everyone loses some hair every day.
In women, hair loss is generally more diffused and does not progress to overall baldness1. Men, however, tend to see more of their scalp than most would like to.
For 80 per cent of men2 with a thinning pate, the problem is genetic. Male Pattern Baldness, also called androgenic alopecia, can cause a receding hairline in men from as early as age 203 . Aging and larger health issues often make this worse.
And along with hair loss comes a loss of confidence and self-esteem.
Male Pattern Baldness can be recognised by its distinctive pattern. Hair starts to thin at the temple and crown of the head, and ends in a large M or U-shaped bald spot fringed by the remaining hair.
To blame is an inherited sensitivity to Dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a derivative of testosterone which increases after puberty. DHT causes hair follicles to shrink so that strands grow back thinner, finer and shorter. It takes progressively longer for hair to grow back until eventually, the follicles stop producing hair altogether4, leaving the scalp barren.
Nutritional deficiencies, stress, certain types of medication and unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking can make the problem worse.
While most men tend to accept their follicular fate, even unleashing their inner Sean Connery and shaving it all off, others head for help.
Globally, US$2 billion is spent on surgical procedures for hair loss, according to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery5. In the US alone, the 10 per cent or so of American men who seek treatment part with nearly US$1 billion a year6 on shampoos, scalp treatments, therapies, transplants and even creating new hairs from tissue samples7.
Others seek out more natural approaches, including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
The Root of Male Hair Loss
Practitioners of TCM believe that the health of one’s hair is closely linked to the state of one’s internal organs.
Eu Yan Sang physician Lim Sock Ling explains that a common cause of hair loss in men is “an accumulation of dampness and heat in the spleen, and stagnant qi (life force) in the liver”. This results in a decrease in blood flow to the head, and the hair not being sufficiently nourished. The health and abundance of hair is also believed to be closely linked to kidney “jing” or essence, and weakness in the kidneys can also lead to hair loss.
“Herbs to remove dampness and heat, or to nourish blood and improve qi circulation are usually prescribed. In addition, the patient will usually be advised to avoid alcohol and food that is cold, spicy, fried or sweet,” Ms Lim says. These foods can impede the spleen’s function and ability to transport fluid, which allow dampness and heat to accumulate, she adds.
Acupuncture on the scalp and in the balding areas is sometimes recommended to improve blood circulation and increase blood flow8, as are stress-relieving measures like relaxing massages, adequate sleep and regular exercise. Drinking rose bud or camomile tea is also often recommended, as is a soup concoction known as Siwu Tang9. The soup contains four herbal elements: shu di huang and bai shao, which nourish the blood, and chuan xiong and dang gui, which regulate ‘qi’ and blood10. “When used together, these herbs can complement one another to ensure efficacy of the soup. Although most people associate Siwu Tang with gynaecological conditions which usually involve issues with blood, the soup is actually suitable for hair loss if the cause of this condition is blood deficiency and stagnant qi,” said Ms Lim.
Beyond traditional therapies, good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle also help. Foods believed to be beneficial for hair health include fish, meat, eggs, milk, beans, foods which contain iodine like kelp and seaweed, and foods which contain Vitamin E like celery, spinach and black sesame11.
Li, a 25-year-old Taiwanese12 man, visited the Taipei City Hospital for TCM treatment after finding that his hairline was receding and that the hair on the top of his head was becoming increasingly sparse. His TCM physician further found that Li had an oily, itchy scalp with dandruff.
Deeper investigations surfaced a penchant for late nights and fried, spicy and cold foods, believed to cause imbalances that affect blood circulation and disrupt the flow of adequate nutrients to the hair.
After six months of treatment and a change in lifestyle, new hairs started to regenerate. Said Ms Lim, “We cannot reverse the loss of hair which is written in the genes, but changing habits and addressing root causes which may be causing premature hair loss is certainly possible.”