It’s a tale as old as time: experiencing hair loss, brittle locks, dull skin, and wrinkles once you reach midlife. These common issues are often chalked up to simply aging.
While you can’t turn back time, there are ways to head off hair loss and save your skin naturally for both men and women. The first step is getting to the root of hair and skin changes. A common culprit is hormones. (Yes, in addition to changes in body composition, mood, and sleep, hormones can wreak havoc on your beauty routine, too.)
We asked experts how hormones affect your hair and skin, and what you can do to hack your self-care regimen.
How Hormones Impact Hair
A hair-raising truth: More than 50% of women will experience hair loss during their lifetime, according to Lifeforce Physician Assistant Mary Stratos, PA-C, IFMCP, most commonly beginning at age 40. Up to 85% of men will have significantly thinner hair by the age of 50.
“Hormonal changes have been shown to worsen thinning, hair loss, and brittleness,” she says. According to the American Hair Loss Association, the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is often at play. “DHT is an androgenic hormone that shrinks the hair follicle and leads to thinning hair and hair loss,” Stratos explains.
Estrogen protects against DHT, so as women lose estrogen, they may also lose hair, Stratos says. We know that estrogen levels drastically decline near menopause, which is when these issues often come to a head.
“In women, the onset of hair loss is often near or after menopause, when there is an altered estrogen-to-androgen ratio, thus producing more DHT and 5-alpha reductase activation (the enzyme that converts testosterone to DHT),” says Lifeforce Physician Dr. Leah Johansen, MD, ABFM. “There is a gradual thinning of the hair between the frontal and vertex (or crown) of the scalp, normally without affecting the frontal hairline.”
The change may also bring on more changes. “Menopause can trigger shifts to thyroid hormones and stress hormones, both of which can affect hair quality,” Stratos adds.
Stress, Genetics, and Other Hair Loss Culprits
Menopause aside, stress at any point in life can impact your hair. “Stress causes an increase in neuropeptide substance P (SP) and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) systematically as well as in the scalp. SP causes inflammation and destruction to the hair follicle and inhibits its growth,” Dr. Johansen explains. CRH, which is secreted from the hypothalamus in response to stress, promotes the synthesis of cortisol, which is known to disrupt hair growth.
Hair loss is also common postpartum. “During pregnancy, there is a nine-fold increase in progesterone, eight-fold increase in estrogens, and 20-fold increase in prolactin, which actually can reduce hair shedding and increase hair fullness,” Dr. Johansen says. “After childbirth, these hormone levels drop, causing hair shedding up to four months after delivery.”
Dr. Johansen adds that oral contraceptives can increase levels of DHT, leading to hair loss. Endocrine conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) also cause a higher androgen index — higher testosterone than estrogens — which may translate to losing hair.
For men, DHT is also a likely culprit in hair loss. However, the onset of hair thinning is more gradual and can begin anytime after puberty, according to Dr. Johansen. “It causes bitemporal thinning of the frontal scalp first (the ‘receding hairline’), and then involves the vertex or crown of the head,” she says.
Men often hear to look to their fathers as a predictor of future hair loss. That’s because “genetics play a role in how sensitive the hair follicle is to DHT and at what age men may start experiencing hair loss,” Stratos says. Men are more affected by the genetic variation of DHT than women because DHT plays a major role in the embryonic sexual differentiation of organs and the sexual development of males during puberty and adulthood, according to Dr. Johansen.
Still, the state of our locks is not locked in by our DNA. Balancing your hormones can help you get ahead of it. Read on to learn more about what you can do.
How Hormones Impact Skin
Another tough reality to face: Menopause and perimenopause also accelerates the appearance of aging.
“Hormonal changes, particularly a decrease in estrogen, play a significant role in skin changes during midlife. There are several reasons for this, but one of them is estrogen’s role in supporting collagen production,” Stratos says. “Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and supports keeping structural tissue, like skin, firm and intact. As collagen levels fall, structural integrity of the skin decreases, which can lead to thinner skin and less elasticity. Estrogen also increases hyaluronic acid, which is what gives skin that moisturized, plump appearance.”
Estrogen isn’t the only hormone involved. Dr. Johansen adds that perimenopausal and menopausal shifts in progesterone, luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), Inhibin B, gonadotropin hormone-releasing hormone (GnRH), and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) can also “cause a decrease in elastin and collagen production, water content, and sebaceous gland excretion, causing structural changes to the dermal layer of the skin. The dermal layer thins by up to 20%, making skin stiffer, less malleable, and more vulnerable to injury. The skin also becomes dry and itchy with wrinkles and sagging,” says Dr. Johansen.
Hormones also alter men’s skin. Stratos explains that testosterone supports blood flow to the skin, causing a moisturized, full appearance. In men, testosterone drops 1 to 2% each year starting in the mid-30s. “As testosterone levels fall, skin can become more dry and less elastic, making wrinkles more noticeable,” Stratos says.
So, what do you do when you notice these changes?
Your First Step: Check Your Levels
First thing’s first: You want to rule out any serious conditions with a physician. “If someone is experiencing hair loss, it’s important to screen for acute issues such as anemia, vitamin deficiencies, or severe stress,” Stratos says. “After that, a conversation around hormones is an important step in this process.”
If hormones are causing changes in your appearance, you need to know where your levels stand. The Lifeforce Diagnostic tests for 40+ biomarkers, including testosterone, estradiol, progesterone, IGF-1, FSH, and other essential biomarkers for hormone balance.
If there is an imbalance, you can work with your Lifeforce clinician to explore treatment options, including hormone optimization for men and women, nutraceuticals such as DHEA (which helps your body produce key hormones like testosterone and estrogen), and lifestyle shifts to support your hormones.
5 Hacks to Support Skin and Hair From the Inside Out
In addition to optimizing your hormones, there are simple tips you can try to get glowing, younger-looking skin and thick, healthy tresses.
1. Soothe Stress
As we mentioned before, “stress negatively impacts reproductive hormones, can reduce blood flow to the hair follicle, and can exacerbate already low hormone levels,” Stratos warns.
Dr. Johansen also stresses the importance of managing stress. “Get ahead of it,” she suggests. “Create a daily meditation practice that you’re devoted to.” Research shows that consistently meditating mindfully for even short periods may boost your mood and decrease stress. (Not sure how to get started? Check out 5 Ways to Get Started with Meditation here) Practices like deep breathing and exercise can also help ease stress. (Learn more stress-busting techniques here.)
2. Boost Your Water Intake
Drink up! “Hydration is absolutely key for skin quality,” Stratos says. Research shows that water intake can enhance skin appearance and combat skin dryness and dullness. “Aim to stay fully hydrated by drinking at least half of your body weight in ounces of water daily,” Stratos says.
3. Fuel Up with Protein
“I always make sure that Lifeforce members I work with are consuming enough high-quality protein to support natural collagen production,” Stratos says. Remember that collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, and it keeps your skin firm and plump. Collagen also supports the dermal layers in your scalp, which house hair follicles.
Stratos suggests adding protein and collagen-rich foods like bone broth to your diet to promote keratin, collagen, and hair structure. Check out more protein-packed foods here.
4. Eat a Hair-Healthy Diet
Colorful fruits and veggies deliver a high concentration of flavonoids. “These are antioxidants that can provide protection for hair follicles and support hair growth,” Dr. Johansen says. “I also recommend eating foods high in biotin, such as beef liver, eggs, salmon, or sunflower seeds. And soy foods, such as soybeans, tempeh, and tofu, can inhibit the formation of dihydrotestosterone (DHT), the androgen implicated in the process of hair loss.”
You can also enhance estrogen through your diet. “I love using phytoestrogens like freshly ground flax seeds to gently support estrogen,” says Stratos.
5. Check Your Product Labels
We talked about what to put in your body. What you put on your body also matters.
“Read your labels on personal care products to avoid potential autoimmune triggers such as titanium,” Dr. Johansen recommends. “Titanium is one of the whitest substances available and is commonly used in cosmetics, sunscreens, and toothpaste.” (It can also be found in processed sweets, gum, and dairy products with a white color like milk, cheese, and yogurt.) Research shows that titanium dioxide can reduce levels of FSH, LH, estradiol, and progesterone.
Stratos also suggests steering clear of sulfates, which are chemicals used as cleansing agents in shampoos and other products. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends avoiding sulfates if you have rosacea, eczema, or any kind of sensitive skin, as it can be an irritant. Sulfates can also exacerbate issues like dry or thin hair. Instead, “use natural products like sulfate-free shampoos that won’t strip the hair of its natural oils,” Stratos says.
Dr. Johansen is a fan of shampoos and conditioners that contain biotin and silica. “Aloe vera gel, vitamins C and E, and jojoba oils are also good for the hair,” she says. “Conditioners containing chamomile, marigold, ginseng, and/or passionflower also keep hair healthy.”
Ready to get to the root of the issue? Start by checking your hormone levels. With the Lifeforce Membership, you’ll get your hormones and other key biomarkers tested quarterly. Then, you’ll work with both a Lifeforce clinician and Lifeforce health coach to optimize your health from the inside out, so you can feel confident in the skin you’re in.
This article was medically reviewed by:
Leah Johansen, MD, Board Certified Family Practice Doctor, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner
Mary Stratos, PA-C, Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner