Elisabeth is a 13-time Emmy-winner, a critically acclaimed personal finance author and a 20-year consumer advocate for programs such as Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show.
Knowing The Root Cause of Thinning Hair Could Be The Key
When the Dr. Oz Show asked me to go undercover and see what hair restoration clinics are promising hopeful patients, it was personal. You see, in about 2008, I noticed that my own hair was thinning drastically. I’ve included a photo of my once lustrous, bouncy hair below and I admit, I took pride in it. The real tip-off was how I had to move from large ponytail elastics to small ones. Eventually, even those started slipping off. I had diffuse hair loss, with thinning all over my head, and only a hint of the “wide part” that some women struggle with. Nevertheless, I was depressed — and embarrassed — and had to live out my personal loss on national television as I was a correspondent for Good Morning America at the time.
I’ve shed a lot of hair since then —and now I’m shedding my shame. I’m going public in an effort to help other women. Here are all of the interventions I’ve tried, with my assessments of whether they were worth it or not. Your own journey through hair loss —and regrowth— may be quite different from mine. This is not a complete list of options, but I hope there will be nuggets of helpful information for you here. As for me, I’ve recovered some, but not all, of my hair and I’ve discovered truly innovative styling products that have enhanced what I’ve got and made me confident once again.
When I started noticing much more hair falling out in my brush than I was used to, like many women, the first thing I did was start taking biotin. The idea is that hair is a protein and biotin is part of the chemical reaction needed for amino acids to turn into that protein. Unfortunately, I cannot report that biotin made my hair grow back like it used to be. However, I do notice that my hair (and nails!) grow faster when I take biotin. I need all the help I can get, so to this day I continue using it. If the expense is not an issue for you, you can do the same.
Worth it? Maybe.
Minoxidil 2% or 5%
Minoxidil (better known by the brand name Rogaine) is one of just two non-surgical interventions FDA-approved for hair loss. (The other is Finasteride, which is approved for men and sometimes used off-label in women.) For years, women were encouraged to use the weaker 2% strength, perhaps because our skin is more sensitive, but now the stronger 5% strength is considered fine for women, if well tolerated. So, I tried Minoxidil next but only used it twice. That’s not good, considering you’re supposed to use it twice a day or the rest of your life! I found Minoxidil greasy and messy and worried about getting it on my face, where it can cause facial hair growth. Plus, I have naturally curly hair, but prefer to blow it straight, so wetting my hair with Minoxidil twice a day was a maintenance nightmare.
Keep in mind, top dermatologists say Minoxidil is the most effective treatment for female hair loss, both preserving existing hair and promoting regrowth. However, I decided my own hair loss was just not severe enough to go through this high maintenance routine. If your own hair loss is worse than mine, you should definitely consider Minoxidil, and the sooner you start it, the better.
Worth it? Maybe.
It was time for professional intervention. See the second picture to get a feel for how much volume I had lost at this point.
I asked the experts at the Wake Forest University Hair Disorders Program to recommend a dermatologist in my area who truly understood women’s hair loss. (Many claim to get it, but are not up to date at all.) If you are interviewing dermatologists, ask them if they do a punch biopsy of your scalp to determine your type of hair loss. If they say yes, chances are they know what they’re doing. The dermatologist I found did, indeed, perform the punch biopsy. Basically, she used a tool to cut out a tiny patch of scalp tissue with hair attached, then sent that to a lab for analysis. The lab determined that I had fewer hairs per quarter inch, than average, and that the individual hairs were getting finer, which compounds the thinning look.
The dermatologist prescribed spironolactone, which is a diuretic drug developed to treat high blood pressure, but used off-label to treat women’s hair loss. Patients discovered, by accident, that spironolactone seemed to slow hair loss, perhaps by blocking androgens (a form of testosterone) that attack our hair follicles. Unfortunately, spironolactone made me lightheaded when I stood up quickly, so I discontinued it when I discovered the true cause of my hair loss. According to Harvard Health Publications, spironolactone is only effective if your hair loss is caused by excess androgens, and it’s unusual for women to have high androgens. Before going on this medication — which has potential side effects — you can get your levels of DHT (DiHydroxy Testosterone) tested. Bonus tip: The natural supplement evening primrose oil may be an alternative because some say it also blocks androgens.
Worth it? Maybe.
Complete Thyroid Testing
Apologies for the litany of “maybes” that I’ve shared so far. Imagine how I felt. This is the actual order in which I tried these interventions and I was still losing hair! Losing hair —and gaining weight! So next I went to a holistic nutritionist for help with my diet. I described my hair loss, weight gain and crushing exhaustion and she said, “It sounds like a thyroid problem to me.” I told her that it couldn’t be a thyroid problem because my doctor had already tested my thyroid and it was normal. She replied, “Your doctor probably only ran one test. You need six different thyroid tests to know for sure.” And she was absolutely right!
My doctor had only ordered what’s called a “TSH” or Thyroid Stimulating Hormone test and my result was in the normal range. So the nutritionist gave me the list of blood tests I really needed and the same doctor ordered them for me. He called me a week later with the news: “Your tests were positive for two antibodies that are attacking your thyroid gland. You have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the autoimmune form of hypothyroidism.” And what is one of the foremost symptoms of Hashimoto’s? Hair loss.
I suspect that I had undiagnosed Hashimoto’s for years. Unfortunately most conventional doctors these days rely solely on the TSH blood test because it’s easy and cheap, but it misses potentially millions of cases of Hashimoto’s a year. That’s because when the antibodies are first attacking your thyroid gland, it still continues to function, just not as well. If my doctor had looked, he might have seen that my TSH level was rising steadily —high is bad— for years. So get your thyroid tested the RIGHT way. Below are the six tests you need.
- Thyroglobulin antibodies
- Thyroid Peroxidase antibodies
- Free T3
- Free T4
Make sure your doctor requests these exact tests, not the lab’s “thyroid panel,” which often includes the wrong tests. If you test positive for either type of antibodies, you have Hashimoto’s. Period.
When I got my diagnosis, I was relieved rather than bereaved. At last, I had answers! Hashimoto’s is highly treatable, as long as you know what to do. Speaking of what to do: those same conventional doctors who only test your TSH will probably also try to treat you with a T4-only thyroid medication like levothyroxine. T4 doesn’t work for everybody. It didn’t work for me. You may need a natural thyroid medication derived from pigs that contains T3 and T4 or a T3-only medication.
I learned all I needed to know from the fabulous Janie Bowthorpe, who wrote the book and operates the website called StopTheThyroidMadness.com. When you get your test results back, check out her article on how to interpret thyroid lab results, which emphasizes the importance of getting your lab values to optimal levels rather than just “in-range.” My thinning part closed up as soon as I followed her advice.
Worth It? Yes.
Halo Couture Extensions
Getting treated for my thyroid disorder brought my hair back to a baseline level, like you might see on many women without any health problems. However, I was used to having really thick, glossy hair, so I admit I still wasn’t satisfied. One day, on the set of my YouTube show, the associate producer noticed the makeup artist fiddling with my hair. She caught us! We were trying to bobby pin an awkward hairpiece that I had made myself to thicken-up my hair underneath in the back. “Instead of struggling with that thing, have you heard of Halo Couture extensions?” she asked. I had not and, given that she was a 30-something with gorgeous, long model-like hair, I asked her why on earth she knew about them. “Because I’m wearing them,” she answered. It was a jaw-dropping reminder that we women need to stick together and share our knowledge rather than hiding out with our hair loss.
I made an appointment to be fitted for a “Halo” right away. They’re available through salons only, because you need to match the color in person. Halo Couture extensions are great for women with hair loss because they are not clipped or glued to your hair, which can cause further hair loss. Rather, the hairpiece goes under your own hair and hangs from the crown of your head from a clear string that hides seamlessly. For women whose hair is thinning on top, Halo Couture now makes another version called “The Fall” that covers up that wide part I keep referring to.
I had to see it to believe it, and now I’ve worn these extensions on shoots in the Windy City, out dancing, and even in an updo —and it has never slipped in the slightest. And yet, when you’re done for the day, you just slide the Halo off. At first I bought one the same length as my hair, just for thickness. But then, much like a breast cancer survivor who decides to have some fun and have her breasts reconstructed just a little bit bigger, I bought another Halo that gives me longer hair. I love it so much that now I’m growing my own hair out a couple inches to be the same length! It’s temporary and it’s terrific — the biggest confidence-booster I’ve discovered. As a longtime journalist, I feel a little funny recommending a product so heartily, but rest assured that I received no compensation from the company and just want to share something that has helped me. Check out the photograph of me wearing my long Halo and see what you think. Bonus tip: I also like clip on ponytails that are attached to barrettes, rather than the claw-type that are more common, which I find hard to work with.
Worth It? Yes!
Viviscal Professional Strength
The Halo Couture extensions have enhanced the length and thickness of my hair, but I was still bothered that the hair around my temples seemed thin and weak. The temporary extensions don’t cover that area and at this stage of my life, I refuse to wear a wig! Back to the dermatologist, who had something new to offer. She suggested I try Viviscal Professional supplements, because clinical trials have shown they work particularly well on the temples. (Note that my dermatologist said she had not been impressed with the research behind the original Viviscal vitamins, which are available direct-to-consumer.) You can find a doctor who carries Viviscal on the company’s website.
After about six months of taking Viviscal supplements, the area around my temples does not feature luxuriant locks, but I do see lots of new baby-fine hair growing there and I’m hopeful it will get longer. The supplements are pricy and you may not want to spend the money if your hair loss is not concentrated in the temples, where Viviscal has been proven to work best. It’s up to you, your hair situation, and your finances.
Worth it? Yes – if cost is no problem.
iRestore Hair Growth System
In 2007, the FDA cleared the first home laser devices for treating hair loss. The first generation were combs that you had to painstakingly run over your head for minutes-on-end and many consumers reported that it did more for their biceps than for their hair! I knew that I would never stick with an awkward routine like that when my daily life is already jam-packed (see Minoxidil, above!), so I waited. Sure enough, now companies are putting lasers in hats and helmets that you can wear while you watch TV or work on your computer.
Since early December I have been testing out the iRestore Laser Hair Growth System, since the company was kind enough to lend me a unit to try. You’re supposed to wear the iRestore laser helmet for 25 minutes every other day. I’m happy to say the helmet is so comfortable that I often forget I have it on! My only wishes:
- If it were cordless, that would be even better, although there is a pause button, so if you need to answer the doorbell or something, no problem.
- And it would be great if someday they find a way to make it collapsible for travel. It would fit in my roll-a-board, when I travel for Dr. Oz, but then I wouldn’t have room for all of my clothes, so I don’t take it with me, which means I don’t always stick to the every-other-day schedule.
I hope I am still getting the benefits despite my scheduling lapses. My hairdresser says I am definitely maintaining the hair I have, which matches what the iRestore website describes: “You can expect to see a slowdown in hair loss and reduction in miniaturization of hair follicles in the first 2 to 4 months.” The company says the true test is the 6-month mark and I will report back then.
Worth it? To be determined.
Cosmetic Transdermal Hair Replication
And finally, a wildcard for you that I have not tried myself, but I have seen up-close-and-personal. “Cosmetic Transdermal Hair Replication” is a mouthful, but to give you an idea, it’s similar to tattooing or permanent makeup for your scalp, only with much finer-sized marks placed just under your skin. If you look at them with magnification, the marks are irregular in shape, to mimic hair follicles. For men, this gives a shaved-head stubble look. For women, it can hide the telltale sign of a pale scalp peeking through thinning hair.
While at Good Morning America I profiled a company called Good Look Ink, which perfected the technique. Other companies now offer similar procedures but with different names. I admit I went into the story a skeptic because it just sounded so odd. But when I flew to Minneapolis for the big reveal, despite myself, I was impressed. I met both a male and a female patient and their results were really natural-looking. For the man, it was really a cosmetic issue of no longer looking bald. But for the woman, wow! She had severely thinning dark hair and you could no longer tell simply because her scalp was now camouflaged. You can see the man’s before and after photos here.
If you’re intrigued by this unusual possibility, I recommend reading the piece I wrote for ABC that contains questions to ask before committing. Perhaps most important: ask to see and speak with patients who had this procedure done several years ago to see how the ink holds up over time. The process was so new when I profiled it that I did not have that opportunity.
Worth it? Yes, if it continues to stand up well over time.