Given what I know now,
It’s no surprise that I wound up with hair loss in my early adulthood.
It seems everything about my young life had primed me for bad health.
To begin with, my mother’s side family history includes sub-clinical thyroid disease, celiac disease, obesity, and rampant endometriosis affecting many of the women.
To give a few examples of how aggressive the endometriosis is – my grandmother’s uterus disintegrated in her doctor’s hands after the birth of her last child. And my mother had to have her uterus and ovaries removed when my younger brother was just a few years old.
In my family, a few of us women have significant weight problems. As a note, the women who have never had weight problems tend to have no problem with hair loss.
My mom had always struggled with her weight from the time that she was young, as had my grandmother. Unfortunately, this tendency was passed down to me as well.
As a child, I was outside the norm in my weight and height, being generally the largest in any class I was in. Everyday I got picked on at school because of my weight, but I had a lot of trouble sticking to any diet (which I started trying to do at age 8).
From an early age, I believed that any problems I had were due to my physical appearance. When you’re a kid, it’s difficult to know which beliefs serve you and which don’t. So I kept that belief for a very long time.
I had a lot of stress and depression from being ostracized at school, and actively trying to be invisible so people wouldn’t notice me. Home life was also turbulent with an angry and abusive father, who never had a job, and my mother gone working to the bone supporting all of us.
I saw what she did, and internalized everything. I saw my mom cannibalize her own health to compensate for my dad’s laziness and bad attitude, while being a loving parent to me and my brothers, and trying to keep a smile on her face on a daily basis – all while her health was failing. She was so stressed. She was losing hair from the time she was 30, and carried nearly 240 pounds on her 5’3″ frame. I wanted to save her but never knew how to do it.
That might have been a big source of stress. I continued to be overweight and hate my appearance all the way through junior high and high school, becoming suicidal and going off and on depression medications along the way. When I graduated early with my G.E.D. and started college, I weighed 225 pounds at 5’10.”
Six months after starting college, my body looked and felt like a ziploc bag full of pudding. I had almost no muscle tone, and was tired and stressed all the time with school and work.
When I stepped on the scale, I found I was up to 248 pounds and decided that was as heavy as I would let myself get. It hurt to walk at that weight, and I barely had the energy for my studies. So I went to a health clinic and got on a weight loss program.
For the first month, I ate zero carbs. Just a lot of spinach salads with tuna, olive oil and lemon juice, lean turkey breast, black coffee, things like that. I also got a pedometer and made it my goal to get 10,000 steps in every day. I woke up early to walk 2.5 miles each morning near my house. Then I would park a half mile away from my school and walk there and back on the weekdays.
By the time I turned 19, I weighed 190. I started to feel good at that weight, and was finally getting attention and commendation from others on the way I looked (remember, that was the thing I conditioned myself to see as all-important). That kind of thing has a powerful effect on you if it’s what you’ve been craving all of your life. I knew I had to keep losing the rest of the weight and the sooner the better.
Down the Diet Rabbithole…
I thought that if I could get down to 190 by eating balanced and walking every day, then surely if I dropped my calories even more and started adding an hour long work out on the cardio machine, all the rest of my weight would fall off by summer.
So I got to work chasing the dream for all the wrong reasons…
May 2005 – New diet and exercise plan: Continue with 10,000 steps per day. Add 1 hour of cardio at local gym to the mix. Eat 1 rice cake with peanut butter in the AM, and 2 – 3 low-carb protein shakes (110 calories each) distributed throughout the rest of the day. No additional food. Oh yes, there was also lots and lots of water, because according to EVERYONE, it “flushes fat away.” So I drank 8 – 14 glasses of lemon water with saccarin every day. My friends would laugh about it when we went to dinner because that’s all I would have.
I lost about 5 pounds over the next 2 months by doing this, and then the weight loss completely stopped. Completely stalled. Even with a huge amount of exercise and very little food that I was sticking to religiously.
July 2005 – New diet plan: I got myself a 9 inch round tupperware container, threw some iceberg lettuce in there with some chopped tomatoes, and a little bit of meat. Then I would split this throughout the day – only eating this. Continue with water. Continue with exercise – but not for long as I soon lost the energy to do as much cardio.
My weight wasn’t budging. And in fact I started gaining weight again! It just couldn’t be possible. It must be the weight of the food itself inside me, since I started to become constipated easily. I found some senna laxative pills in the medicine cabinet and started taking them after every meal.
It seemed like this was taking care of the excess weight gain. But I still couldn’t get my weight to go down any more. After two weeks of using the laxative, I started noticing that I could see a little more of my scalp when I parted my hair down the middle.
The onset of my hair loss seemed to correlate directly with the laxative use, however, a natural laxative shouldn’t be the sole cause of a woman’s hair loss. I wasn’t so blind to think that my dieting had nothing to do with my hair loss. There was no way it hadn’t affected me and stressed my body. And the laxative abuse may have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I went to the doctor to see if I could get some help. She said that my hair did look a little sparse in the top but said it was probably nothing to worry about. She ordered some blood tests for me. The tests came back normal, except for a slight sign of hypothyroidism. The doctor prescribed me synthroid and cytomel (synthetic T4 and T3 medications) for my thyroid, for which I was to continue for a year.
Reflections on what lead me to this place of initial hair loss:
Hypothyroidism is sometimes a complex problem. Many factors can cause or contribute to it such as stress, being overweight, estrogen dominance, mineral deficiencies, and inflammatory compounds.
Endometriosis is often the result of too much estrogen and too little progesterone. And since that problem runs in my family, being overweight could have predisposed my to estrogen dominance. Estrogen can suppress the thyroid, and hence I could have acquired thyroid problems once I hit adulthood.
Inflammation. I wish I had known this at the time, but most of us have a high concentration of polyunsaturated fat in our diets. I was certainly flooding my body with polyunsaturated fat with the amount of olive oil I was eating on my salads, and the “healthy” vegetable oils that I had been cooking my vegetables and proteins in. When you burn body fat or when you are stressed, if your diet has been rich in these fats, they are freed from your cells and go out into the body. They cause an inflammatory cascade, and this suppresses the function of your thyroid gland and liver. This also can contribute to autoimmunity. I didn’t find this out until years later, when I first read Danny Roddy’s Hair Like a Fox.
Stress. My whole life was held up by stress from the time I was very young – the stress of feeling ugly, of being an outsider, of wanting to please people and be accepted, of trying to lose weight repeatedly, of pushing myself too hard. Perhaps you can relate to some or all of this. I truly believe now that chronic stress can become so ingrained in our way of life, that it can cause health problems all on its own. It can cause us to be fat, and lose our hair, and become hypothyroid, and develop PCOS and endometriosis.
Looking back, I can clearly see how it may all be connected. But it took years of trial and error, tears, despair, and self-torture. Finally followed by better research, deeper understanding, hope, and a plan for coming back to balance.
Still with me? To read about the journey from there to here, read part II.