Unless an expert in the field, it may not occur that there is a link between eating disorders and hair loss, but while it doesn’t happen in every case, this is a long and well established link and one of a set of symptoms to look out for if you are concerned about a young friend or family member.
The biggest risk group for eating disorders is age 14 – 25. More than 70% of sufferers are female, though males can also be stricken. Body dysmorphia (a psychological condition in which the sufferer believes themselves to be fat, ugly or not worthy of living, often triggered by a bullying or abuse incident), appears to be the main trigger.
Hair loss associated with anorexia is typically accompanied by dehydration (which can lead to kidney failure and cause sunken facial features), cold intolerance, fatigue, lightheadedness, amenorrhea (in females) and dental issues, in addition to the obvious symptom of dramatic weight loss.
Bulimia can present a more healthy appearance on the outside, but because the body is similarly suffering severe vitamin deficiency, as a result of nutrient loss – where food has not been properly processed by the body – it may fare no better on the hair front.
Hair loss is a scary and distressing symptom for someone already in deep emotional distress but the most alarming aspect of anorexia in particular is the high mortality rate of between 5-10%.
If you notice a young friend or family member has thinner hair than is usual and is making excuses to eat separately from everyone else or avoiding food groups or social gatherings where food is involved, gently probe them about their reasons for doing so and possible relationship with food. You may find their issue is not actually food-related, but down to another health condition. Or perhaps they will turn out to have a food allergy such as gluten intolerance, which necessitates avoiding communal eating situations. If it transpires that they need to see a doctor or other professional, volunteer to go with them and offer any emotional support they may need. If they have not recently been screened, encourage them to get tested for vitamin deficiency, allergies, diabetes and thyroid imbalance, where early detection and treatment can help a patient start feeling better almost immediately.
There are many conditions which can cause the body to shut down normal healthy hair production and maintenance because it needs to focus its resources on fighting conditions elsewhere. Or on defending itself from malnutrition or vitamin deficiency. It may also shut down other non-essential functions such as fertility in these circumstances. There may be a number of factors which need ruling out to encourage the body back to normal health again.
Interestingly, noticeable hair loss can be the catalyst for sufferers to seek help for their eating disorders, sometimes after all else has failed in terms of lectures, bribes and threats from increasingly desperate loved ones and medical professionals.