Can low iron cause hair loss?
Reviewed by our clinical team
Low levels of iron in your blood, or iron deficiency, can impact your body’s ability to produce red blood cells, leaving you feeling tired and weak. There’s also some evidence that there’s a relationship between low iron and hair loss.
In this article we’ll take a look at how iron deficiency can contribute to hair loss, and what you can do about it.
What is iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency is the medical term for when you have too little iron in your blood. Iron is an essential trace element, and we absorb it naturally from foods we eat or supplements such as iron tablets. Iron deficiency can be due to poor diet, but is more commonly linked to internal bleeding or, in women, heavy periods or pregnancy. Iron deficiency is thought to affect over 500 million people worldwide.
What is anaemia?
Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, a condition where your body does not produce enough red blood cells, or haemoglobin, which are crucial to delivering oxygen to your tissues. Anaemia can leave you feeling tired and weak. Iron deficiency anaemia is most common in women of childbearing age due to losing iron through periods and pregnancy. It’s thought that around 23% of pregnant women and 14% of non-pregnant women in the UK experience iron deficiency anaemia.
Symptoms of iron deficiency
The symptoms of iron deficiency can differ from person to person, however, some of the most common symptoms include:
You might feel more tired than usual, or become exhausted doing light tasks such as housework or walking.
You may feel weaker than usual, and find that common tasks require more strength and energy than you have.
Haemoglobin is what gives blood its deep red colour. If you’re lacking iron in your blood, your skin might seem paler than is normal.
If you are struggling with chest pains, it could be related to iron deficiency, however, it could be more serious. If chest pains are accompanied by light-headedness, tightness/squeezing across your chest, or shooting pains in your arm, you should seek medical attention immediately to rule out a heart attack.
Headaches and dizziness
Iron deficiency and anaemia make it more difficult for the body to transport oxygen around your body through blood vessels. This can lead to headaches or dizziness as your body struggles to oxygenate itself.
There is some evidence that iron deficiency and anaemia are linked to hair loss, however, it’s not thought to be a common symptom.
Stress and genetic factors are other common causes of hair loss. If you’re noticing hair falling out in the shower, or your hair loss is sudden/falling out in clumps, make sure you speak to your doctor to identify the cause.
Why does iron deficiency cause hair loss?
Although various studies have produced conflicting evidence about the relationship between iron deficiency and hair loss, most doctors agree that a seriously low level of iron in the blood can impact the physiological process of hair follicles, damaging them and leading to hair loss. Iron deficiency can potentially trigger a type of hair loss called telogen effluvium, where intense physical stress or illness causes widespread thinning of the hair in both men and women.
There are many different types of hair loss, and only a doctor can diagnose the cause by considering a range of factors including general health, genetic history, age, and gender.
Treatment for iron deficiency related hair loss
If your doctor thinks iron deficiency anaemia might be behind your hair loss, they’ll first carry out a blood test, which looks for levels of a protein called ferritin. If you have a low level of ferritin, your doctor will likely recommend iron supplements to tackle both this and any effects it has had on your body, including hair loss.
Your doctor might also recommend you adjust your diet to increase your intake through iron-rich foods such as red meat, beans, and nuts. If your low iron levels are being caused by another condition, such as pregnancy complications, heavy periods, or a problem with iron absorption, this will need to be treated first.
If your hair loss was solely due to low iron levels, increasing your iron intake should reverse the effects and encourage regrowth after a few months.
How much iron to take for hair loss?
The average recommended daily amount of iron for men 18 and above is around 8.7mg. As women are more prone to iron deficiency, it’s recommended that they aim for about 14.8mg a day until the age of 50, and 8.7mg in the years after.
Side effects of excess iron intake
You should always follow the recommended dosage on the packaging when taking iron supplements. Iron is toxic in high doses, so taking an excessive amount can make you ill. If you’re unsure about the right amount of iron to take, speak to a pharmacist or doctor.
Taking too much iron can lead to:
- Chronic fatigue
- Joint pain
- Abdominal pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Loss of period
- Lower libido
Can excess iron cause hair loss?
Potentially excess iron can trigger hair loss, whether it’s due to a genetic condition such as haemochromatosis (where the body stores too much iron) or taking too many iron supplements. One of the early signs of haemochromatosis is hair loss.
How to prevent iron deficiency and hair loss
Diet is often not the only cause of iron deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia is usually related to bleeding somewhere in the body, such as heavy periods, or conditions like stomach ulcers. Iron deficiency sometimes occurs in pregnant women as the body requires extra iron for the baby.
However, there are some steps you can take to prevent both iron deficiency and any potential hair loss, by ensuring you look after your body and general health.
Healthy, balanced diet
Ensuring your diet contains everything your body needs to function and thrive is one of the best and easiest ways of improving and maintaining your health. A healthy and balanced diet usually means eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, as well as ensuring your meals contain a good amount of starchy foods like bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and other grains.
Animal protein such as fish, eggs, meat and dairy are a great source of vitamins, however you should aim to keep your intake of red meat and processed meat low. Beans and nuts in particular are a great source of iron. If you do eat processed foods such as biscuits, chocolate, or cakes, it’s best to think of these foods as a treat and have them every now and again.
If you are eating a well-balanced diet, your body should be getting all the nutrients it needs, so you probably don’t need to take additional vitamins. However, if you have a shortage of certain vitamins and minerals, like iron, then supplements can be a good way to keep your vitamin levels high. Some people find that certain vitamins help with hair loss, however there’s limited scientific evidence to support this.
Hair care routine
You can minimise the impact of hair loss by implementing a good hair care routine and looking after your hair. There are many kinds of shampoos and treatments that claim to slow hair loss and improve regrowth, however there isn’t a huge amount of evidence to support these claims.
Usually, the only way to prevent hair loss is to treat the underlying condition. The only over-the-counter hair product proven to stop hair loss and improve regrowth is minoxidil (also known as Regaine), however, this only treats hereditary hair loss (known as male/female pattern baldness) and would not help with hair loss that is due to another medical condition.
While these haircare products generally can’t stop hair loss, they can help you take care of the hair you have to make the thinning or patches less noticeable. There are also a range of hairstyles which can make hair loss less obvious and improve confidence.
Although the links between iron deficiency anaemia and hair loss still aren’t fully understood, we do know that ensuring your body has all the essential nutrients it needs plays a big role in keeping your hair healthy. There are many causes of hair loss in both women and men, so if you’re concerned about it, your first step should be booking an appointment with a doctor to discuss your options.