Getting to ‘The Root’ of hair loss

The impact of disease on hair

Conclusion of a two-part story

By Anika Robbins

Contributing Writer


Disease and illness, and in some cases the treatment of those illnesses, are also implicit in hair loss. Auto-immune diseases like lupus cause hair loss in up to 50 percent of those diagnosed. Diabetes, alopecia areata, and other such conditions also factor significantly.

Those with type 2 diabetes are particularly prone to infection. Bacterial, fungal, viral and parasitic infections of the scalp are common and can result in hair loss as well. Thyroid dysfunctions from hormonal and metabolic imbalance are also cited.

Breast cancer offers an example of treatment-induced hair loss. Anagen effluvium occurs after any injury to the hair follicle and is commonly associated with chemotherapy.

Since chemotherapy targets your body’s rapidly dividing cancer cells, your body’s other rapidly dividing cells, such as hair follicles in the growing (anagen) phase, are also greatly affected. Soon after chemotherapy begins, approximately 90 percent (or more) of the hairs can fall out.

According to the African American Breast Cancer Alliance (AABCA), a Twin Cities support and outreach group for survivors of the disease, all women are at risk for breast cancer, but African American women under age 40 are particularly at risk for more aggressive tumors.

“Know the facts!” says Reona Berry, AABCA founding member and survivor. While, the nationally recommended age for breast exams and mammograms is 40, they strongly urge women to begin earlier.

“Despite substantial improvement in the survival rates for all women diagnosed with breast cancer in the last decade, there is still a major inequity in survival rates between African American and Caucasian women,” says Kola Okuyemi, MD, MPH, program director at University of Minnesota’s Health Disparities Research. “In Minnesota, although African American women are about 20 percent less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, the survival rate for African American women with breast cancer is 25 percent lower than for Caucasian women.”

One major reason for the lower survival rate among African American women is that they are more likely to be diagnosed during late-stage breast cancer, meaning it’s not detected early enough. Limited awareness of risk factors, fear, lack of adequate mammogram or Pap smear follow-up, and lack of cultural competence of providers and institutions are cited as barriers to early diagnoses and treatment.


Getting to ‘The Root’ of it all

These staggering statistics were the focus of a hair workshop in North Minneapolis. The Root Textured Hair Series is a five-part series exploring the unique challenges and solutions for women with textured hair.

To date, the series has ventured into the “taboos” of hair, uncovering attitudes around race, culture and beauty ideals and their impact on style choices, relationships and children. “Strand 4” in the series focused on hairstyling solutions for women experiencing thinning, damage and hair loss.

Presentations by the University of Minnesota’s Health Disparities Research Team and the Minnesota Center for Cancer Collaborations (MC3), of which Dr. Okuyemi is also the director, provided up-to-date information on cancer and other diseases that impact women of color.

A special presentation by the African American Breast Cancer Alliance was also featured. Hands-on hairstyling demonstrations, nutrition analysis and head-wrapping were offered.

There is so much that the average woman doesn’t know when it comes to the connection between her grooming and lifestyle habits and the potential health implications. It is important for us not to have just another “pink” event, but to truly educate and engage with women in a warm, supportive setting about their bodies, their hair, potential illnesses, and the resources available to them so they can feel empowered to make informed decisions.


Hope for hair loss

Despite the statistics and research, there is hope for those who struggle with hair loss. In fact, studies suggest that when patients adjust their lifestyles to include eating more fruit and vegetables, vitamins, foods low in fat and cholesterol, cutting out smoking and reducing or cutting out alcohol altogether, they decrease their risk.

Exercise and stress management are also highlighted. In some cases, simply stopping the activity that caused the hair loss — choosing different styles of braiding, for instance, can prevent traction alopecia. Unless hair follicles or scalp are permanently damaged, there is hope for hair renewal.

“Take charge of your breast health,” says Berry. “With early detection and a plan of action, you put yourself back in the driver’s seat…of your life.” The same could be said for the health of your hair.


Anika Robbins is a beauty and wellness expert. A cosmetology educator, she is the co-owner of the Robbins Urban Wellness Retreat offering programs on chiropractic, nutrition, massage and beauty. She travels extensively promoting health, beauty and empowerment through her company, ANIKA INTERNATIONAL. She welcomes reader responses to 612-670-6355 or via email: