For many years it was believed that high levels of testosterone alone caused male pattern baldness (MPB). Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone is converted to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) by the 5a-reductase enzyme. DHT is a super-testosterone and high levels of it increase the risk of developing male pattern baldness. The higher the levels of free testosterone that circulate in the body, the more DHT that is produced. The higher the body’s DHT levels – and here we’re talking about tissue DHT, as found in the scalp, rather than serum DHT – the greater the hair loss (at least that’s the theory). DHT has a far greater affinity for the androgen receptors responsible for MPB than ordinary testosterone. So as you might expect, higher levels of testosterone lead to greater hair loss.
The problem with this theory is that as men age they are statistically more likely to lose their hair. But paradoxically, testosterone levels tend to decrease with age. Further, testosterone levels are not much different between balding and non-balding men. Male pattern baldness has also been found in men with low testosterone levels.
Estrogen, Cortisol And Their Effect On Hormonal Balance
Current research suggests that it’s the female sex hormone, estrogen, which plays a key role in male pattern baldness. It’s not estrogen levels on their own that’s the problem. In fact, estrogen is good for hair growth. Rather it’s the ratio between testosterone and estrogen levels.
This hormonal imbalance can occur in both men and women at all ages, and there are many reasons why it occurs. As we’ve just noted, aging can reduce testosterone levels, which in turn affects the testosterone:estrogen ratio. The modern diet can also reduce testosterone levels. For women who have gone through the menopause, their estrogen levels are reduced by as much as 90%. An underperforming thyroid may also skew the testosterone:estrogen ratio.
Another example of a hormonal imbalance which can promote hair loss is caused by stress. In response to a crisis, the body’s adrenal glands produce cortisol, a hormone which triggers the flight-or-fight response. Unfortunately this extra cortisol is produced at the expense of hormones which sustain hair growth. This is why long-term stress and anxiety can lead to thinning hair.
Estrogen And Dietary Solutions to MPB
Estrogen is associated with healthy hair growth. Not only does it protect against hair loss by reducing DHT conversion, it stimulates new hair and slows the growing – or anagen – phase. Essentially, estrogen works its wonders by overriding the effects of testosterone.
Estrogen should not be directly administered to men with MPB because it shuts off testosterone. The amounts needed to have any perceptible effect on hair loss can cause symptoms such as breast growth and decreased sex drive.
A far better solution is to take a supplement, such as Finasteride, a key ingredient in the hair loss medication, Propecia. Finasteride is an estrogen booster, which reduces the conversion of free testosterone to DHT. Estrogen biosynthesis is also known as aromatase activity.
Switching to a diet rich in fruit and vegetables can also support healthy hair growth. Such a whole-food diet improves hormonal balance and provides essential nutrients. Reducing junk food, caffeine and alcohol prevents follicle inflammation, which inhibits hair growth.
References and further reading
- Dihydrotestosterone: 20 Ways to Increase DHT and 5-a Reductase Levels Naturally, by Ali Kuoppala
- How Does Finasteride Impact Testosterone and Estrogen Levels, Sept 4, 2015
- Estrogen – follacure.com
- How to Prevent and Reverse Baldness, Simply, Safely, and Naturally, by Dr Nick Delgado
- Men: Stop Thinking Your Hair Loss Is Due To High Testosterone, by Rob, April 21, 2014
- Hormones and Hair Loss – How Cortisol Affects Hair Growth, by Nutrafol Hair Expert, July 11, 2016