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Nov 22, 2021
5 min read

Iron deficiency and hair loss: what’s the connection?

Research shows that low levels of iron could be linked to excessive hair loss, especially in women. Incorporating more iron-rich food sources–red meat, dark leafy greens, and fortified cereals–is one proven way to help reverse an iron deficiency and promote healthy hair.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

As the name suggests, iron deficiency anemia occurs due to insufficient levels of iron in the body. This lack of a key nutrient could also be a contributor to hair loss.

Iron deficiency causes a type of anemia, which is when there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to deliver enriching oxygen to the rest of the body. Many things can cause anemia, but an iron deficiency is one of the most common. 

Let’s take a closer look at what causes iron deficiencies and the potential impact it can have on hair growth.

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What is iron deficiency anemia?

You’ve probably heard of iron deficiency––or maybe even had it yourself. Research estimates between 30–50% of children and other groups worldwide have anemia due to lack of iron. This is especially prevalent in developing countries of Africa, for example, because many kids don’t get enough iron from their diet (Miller, 2013).

When you don’t get enough iron, it especially affects your bone marrow. The marrow is where hemoglobin is created, a process that depends on iron. Hemoglobin is what gives blood its signature shade of red––more importantly, it enables blood cells to transport oxygen throughout your body.

How does an iron deficiency cause hair loss?

Much of the body’s iron supply is stored in hemoglobin, but some is stored as ferritin (a blood protein that contains iron) in the liver. In fact, blood levels of ferritin are used to measure the total iron storage in the body (Barney, 2021). 

One small study found that ferritin levels were significantly lower in women with hair loss. This, along with other research, suggests that there may be a connection between hair loss and lack of iron stores in the body (Moeinvaziri, 2009). 

Hair loss in women vs. men

Studies so far have found alopecia due to anemia may be something that largely affects women. 

Iron deficiency anemia on its own is much more common in women. Research estimates anemia affects up to 12% of white women and 20% of Black and Mexican-American women, compared to only 2% of adult men (Killip, 2007).

To better understand the link between iron deficiency and excessive hair loss in women, a study examined more than 5,000 women aged 35–60. Among participants experiencing excessive hair loss or shedding, roughly 10% more had low iron stores compared to the remainder of the population (Deloche, 2007). While the science looks promising, further studies are needed to prove a link between iron deficiency and hair loss.

Additional research suggests an iron deficiency may cause hair similar to the pattern seen in androgenic alopecia––the most common type of hair loss. Often called male pattern baldness, androgenic alopecia can affect anyone. For men, it’s usually a receding hairline or bald spot on the crown of the head. Women typically see hair thinning along their part followed by shedding all over (Park, 2013).

Symptoms and causes of iron deficiency 

The most common causes of iron deficiency anemia in women are blood loss during your period and pregnancy. 

For men and postmenopausal women, gastrointestinal blood loss (which can occur from conditions like ulcers, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease) is a leading cause of low iron. People living with kidney failure or who practice a vegan diet may also be more prone to iron deficiencies.

In some cases, it’s possible not to realize you have iron deficiency anemia until the condition progresses. People will experience symptoms differently, but common signs of low iron include:

  • Irritability and fatigue
  • Pale, yellow, or sallow-looking skin
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sore or swollen tongue 

A unique sign of iron deficiency is something called pica, which is an unexplainable craving for non-nutritious things like ice, clay, soil, or paper.

Diagnosing an iron deficiency 

If you believe your hair loss is related to an iron deficiency, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider before taking matters into your own hands. It may seem tempting to self-diagnose and take an iron supplement, but they do have side effects, and your good health intentions may end up leading to more severe health problems. 

A visit to the doctor usually involves discussing your medication history and symptoms. Following a physical exam, your provider can run a blood test to see how much iron is stored in your body. Your provider will also likely test your hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. These and iron tests are regarded as the most efficient and cost-effective way to diagnose an iron deficiency (DeLoughery, 2017). 

If it’s confirmed you’re low on iron and experiencing hair loss, your provider may test further to determine the exact cause of your iron deficiency. The good news is iron deficiency anemia is often treatable. 

How to prevent iron deficiency

If iron deficiency anemia is the suspected cause of hair loss, the first thing to do is be mindful of your iron intake. 

Eat a balanced diet with foods rich in iron, including meat, poultry, and fish. For people who prefer to get nutrients from plant-based sources, legumes and leafy greens like kale, broccoli, and collards are a great way to get iron. You’ll also find grocery store shelves lined with iron-fortified foods, including cereal, bread, and pasta.

You can also try consuming more foods with vitamin C––like grapefruit, oranges, peppers, and potatoes––as vitamin C is known to help the body absorb more iron. In more severe cases of anemia, iron supplements may be needed for hair regrowth and to prevent future hair loss. 

If you want to see what you need to get a nutritionally adequate diet, check out the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), a tool developed by the Food and Nutrition Board. The RDA represents the average daily intake needed to meet nutritional requirements for most  healthy individuals. The suggestions for iron in milligrams per day (mg/d) are (RDA, 2019): 

  • Females 9–13 years: 8 mg/d
  • Females 14–18 years: 15 mg/
  • Females 19–50 years: 18 mg/d 
  • Females 51+ years: 8 mg/d
  • Males 9–13 years: 8 mg/d
  • Males 14–18 years: 11mg/d
  • Males 19+ years: 8 mg/d

Important to note, the daily amount increases to 27 mg/d for pregnant women of any age, and 10 mg/d for lactating women 14–18 years, and 9 mg/d for lactating women 19–50 years (NIH, n.d.).

Beyond what you put into your body, keeping good hair hygiene may also help with some forms of hair loss. Avoid using harsh chemicals on your hair, and don’t be too rough on it while brushing. Use straighteners and hair curlers that emit a lot of heat sparingly. With a combo of this and an iron-rich diet, you’ll be on your way to healthier hair.

References

  1. Barney, J., Moosavi, L. (2021). Iron. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542171/
  2. Deloche, C., Bastien, P., Chadoutaud, S., Galan, P., Bertrais, S., Hercberg, S., & de Lacharrière, O. (2007). Low iron stores: a risk factor for excessive hair loss in non-menopausal women. European Journal of Dermatology, 17(6), 507–512. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17951130/
  3. Deloughery, T. G. (2017). Iron Deficiency Anemia. Medical Clinics of North America, 101(2), 319-332. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2016.09.004. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28189173/
  4. Killip, S., Bennett, J.M., Chambers, M.D. (2007). Iron Deficiency Anemia. American Family Physician, 75(5), 671-678. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0301/p671.html
  5. Miller, J. L. (2013). Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 3(7). doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a011866. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3685880/
  6. Moeinvaziri, M., Mansoori, P., Holakooee, K., Safaee Naraghi, Z., & Abbasi, A. (2009). Iron status in diffuse telogen hair loss among women. Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica, 17(4), 279–284. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20021982/
  7. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes (n.d.). Retrieved on July 23, 2020 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/Dietary_Reference_Intakes.aspx
  8. Olsen, E., Reed, K. B., Cacchio, P. B., & Leslie, C. (2010). Iron deficiency in female pattern hair loss, chronic telogen effluvium, and control groups. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 63(6), 991-9. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2009.12.006. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20947203/
  9. Park, S. Y., Na, S. Y., Kim, J. H., Cho, S., & Lee, J. H. (2013). Iron Plays a Certain Role in Patterned Hair Loss. Journal of Korean Medical Science, 28(6), 934. doi:10.3346/jkms.2013.28.6.934. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23772161/
  10. Trost, L. B., Bergfeld, W. F., & Calogeras, E. (2006). The diagnosis and treatment of iron deficiency and its potential relationship to hair loss. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 54(5), 824-844. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2005.11.1104. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16635664/