Why Do Eating Disorders Often Cause Hair Loss?

We all know that food is necessary to fuel our bodies, but there are many people who have a complicated relationship with food. If you're someone who feels stress and anxiety about eating, there are many people who understand what you're going through. According to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, it's estimated that 30 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder, which appears to be most prevalent among adolescents and young adults between the ages of 12 and 25. The risk of dying from an eating disorder is higher than for other psychiatric illnesses, as chronic anorexia nervosa is fatal for 20% of affected individuals who don't receive treatment.

An eating disorder can take several forms. For instance, people with anorexia nervosa can feel an extreme aversion to food, making them eat in very small amounts or avoid eating altogether. As explained by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), individuals with this eating disorder have a distorted perception of their bodies and consider themselves overweight even when they are to the point of emaciation. 

Alternatively, someone with bulimia nervosa can eat large amounts of food at one time and will try to rectify it by using laxatives, making themselves vomit, or engaging in vigorous exercise. People struggling with binge-eating disorder experience similar overindulging eating behaviors, except they don't purge or fast afterward.

When you think of eating disorders, you might think of hair loss as a common symptom. Let's take a look at why this can happen.

How does an eating disorder contribute to hair loss?

The thought of clumps of your hair falling out when you're combing through it is the stuff of nightmares for most people. For some people with eating disorders, however, this can be a very real consequence of their illness. According to a 2013 article published in Clinics in Dermatology, approximately 17% to 61% of patients with anorexia nervosa reported experiencing hair loss, alopecia, and brittle hair. 

Skin, hair, and nails are formed by an organ system called the integumentary system, which is negatively affected by anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, as explained by Within Health. Due to the restrictive eating patterns that individuals with eating disorders routinely engage in, the body can become malnourished. The body will become deprived of the essential nutrients provided by food, including a protein called keratin that is found in our hair. During a state of malnutrition, the body will use any protein available for functions that are essential to its survival, like organ function. This means that hair growth will be put on the back burner, which could contribute to weak and brittle hair in individuals who have eating disorders. 

Hair loss due to anorexia nervosa is often accompanied by other dangerous and potentially fatal symptoms, such as dehydration that could result in kidney failure. Some research suggests that anorexia may also lead to cognitive issues such as memory loss, seizures, and slower functioning, according to The Emily Program.

Steps towards healing from an eating disorder

Having an eating disorder can take a significant toll on an individual's mind and body. Besides the physical effects of restrictive eating habits, like hair loss, having the illness can be emotionally painful. Someone with an eating disorder can struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth, making them criticize the person they see in the mirror. Beginning the journey to healing won't always be easy, but receiving treatment can help reduce the possibility of experiencing the physical and cognitive consequences of an eating disorder.

Eating disorder treatment is an individualized process, and some people in recovery from an eating disorder benefit from a multidimensional treatment plan. For example, a mental health professional can provide psychotherapy to challenge distorted thinking while a dietician can assist with meal plans and implementing healthy eating habits, as illustrated by WebMD

An inpatient stay in a hospital may be necessary for some individuals with severe eating disorders. There are residential programs available where patients can live in a facility for a period of time as they receive long-term treatment for their eating disorder. Those who believe they have an eating disorder should speak with a doctor to figure out the most appropriate treatment option for them.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).