Like many women, Sandy Skotnicki juggled multiple roles. During office hours, she was a respected dermatologist, researcher and lecturer at the University of Toronto. Before, after, and often in between, she managed the myriad responsibilities of a mother of three.
It was a delicate balance, and one that came crashing down one day. Just as work was becoming more hectic, her mother was diagnosed with a serious illness. Devastated, her father leaned on her for emotional support. Soon, the emotional and psychological toll started to show.
Sandy’s hair began falling, first a little bit more than usual, and then in clumps. Her lips became dry and chapped, and she fell sick easily.
Her western medical training offered up few solutions. She had heard of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), including how it treats patients holistically rather than by addressing symptoms in isolation, and decided to try it out. She visited a TCM physician, with whom she discussed what was happening in her life, and was prescribed herbs, acupuncture, tui na and advised to make some lifestyle changes. This, among others, was to boost restore her health and energy level.
Sandy followed her physician’s advice and gradually, her energy returned. Three weeks later, her hair also stopped falling. “While my inner scientist continues to want peer-reviewed evidence, my own experience and observation of (my TCM physician’s) practice tells me that thousands of years of traditional knowledge have much to offer that is of great value,” says Sandy, whose story is shared in the book “Inner Beauty: Looking, Feeling and Being Your Best” by Zhao Xiaolan.1
Hair loss can be devastating – indeed, women diagnosed with alopecia have likened it to having a mastectomy2. UK industry body The Hair Society estimates that globally, 35 million men and 21 million women suffer from hair loss, beginning at the average age of 35.3 This year alone, US$2.8 billion is expected to be spent on treatment.4
Clinically, common treatments include medication – minoxidil is the drug of choice – and surgical options, like hair transplant or surgical restoration. TCM approaches hair loss differently.
TCM practitioners believe that the main cause of hair loss is blood deficiency. “Hair will grow well if there is sufficient blood in the body, and blood in the body is governed by the spleen and the liver. A well-functioning spleen and liver will allow healthy hair growth and shine,” says Eu Yan Sang physician Lin Xiao Yan.
The kidneys also play a role, she says. “The kidneys govern the essence of the body, and this kidney essence is needed to keep one’s hair black. Weakened kidney ‘qi’ and a lack of essence may cause hair to turn grey.” she explains.
Conversely, healthy hair reflects healthy ‘qi’ in the liver, spleen and kidneys. That means that just by looking at a person’s hair, a TCM practitioner can get an idea of a person’s overall health. Dry and brittle hair, for example, might indicate a ‘yin’ deficiency or ‘heat’ in the blood5, while hair growth in abnormal places, such as the chin, might indicate that blood is not flowing properly6.
While hair type and volume are determined by our genes, overall hair condition is determined by our lifestyle. Many factors – both external and internal – can affect the condition of our blood, and consequently, the state of our hair. These include stress, anxiety, an unhealthy diet, lack of sleep and some medications7.
By understanding the whole patient – beyond his or her hair problems – TCM practitioners seek to restore balance to the body, which ultimately restores hair health.
Worrying Hair Loss
The specific treatment prescribed depends on the causes and manifestation of the hair loss, the person’s age, as well as the TCM practitioner’s observation of non-verbal clues of overall health, including the patient’s complexion, tongue, pulse and voice.8
Hair loss that comes with advancing age, for example, is often the result of a gradual loss of blood, kidney ‘qi’ and essence. If treatment is undertaken early enough to nourish the blood and kidney ‘qi’, this hair loss can be reduced or delayed9.
Hair loss at an earlier age is treated differently.
A 36-year-old housewife and mother of one went through a six-month period when she found clumps of hair on the bathroom floor after showering, and on her pillow when she woke up in the morning. While it is normal to lose between 50-100 strands of hair per day, more than that, especially at an early age, can be traumatic.
Also, although she experienced no signs of greying, her hair was brittle. During her consultation with a TCM practitioner, she confessed that she had not been sleeping well at night and got tired easily. She was prescribed herbs that would nourish her ‘qi’, blood and kidneys. After two weeks, the hair loss was noticeably less, and after two months, her hair was thicker and stronger.
Women are also more prone to losing hair after giving birth, a life event which, while joyful, is believed to deplete the mother’s energy and blood. Says Ms Lin, “Pregnancy and child birth cause the mother to lose qi, essence, and blood. Post-pregnancy hair loss is common, especially if there were multiple pregnancies within a short time frame.”
After giving birth, Chinese women drink copious amounts of a hot sweet drink brewed with dried longan, red dates and wolfberries, all of which help replenish ‘qi’ and nourish blood to restore health to new mothers, including the state of her hair. They also avoid foods that are considered ‘cooling’, including watermelon, bitter gourd and winter melon, as these could harm the spleen.
When hair loss is more pronounced, herbal medication and acupuncture can help stimulate blood circulation to the head.
TCM can also be used to mitigate the extent of hair loss after chemotherapy treatments10.
Expanding Bald Spots
Another form of hair loss that can be helped is alopecia areata, which manifests in the form of a bald spot. Left untreated, it can develop into a more serious condition leading to the loss of all body hair. Western medicine considers alopecia areata an auto-immune disorder in which the body attacks its own hair follicles9.
A 59-year-old housewife who developed a bald patch measuring about 4cm in diameter had been treated with steroids, antibiotics and hair supplements by her general practitioner. A consultation with a Eu Yan Sang physician surfaced that she also had problems with poor sleep and was worried about her son. She washed her hair frequently, scrubbing hard. The practitioner advised her to cut down on the frequent washings and prescribed herbs that would nourish her kidneys while reducing heat in the spleen.
The TCM practitioner was aware that she had visited a general practitioner, and instructed her to take the herbs and the western medication at least two hours apart. For a short time, the problem worsened, exacerbated by a two-week overseas trip, and then started to get better with the addition of weekly acupuncture treatments. After a month, the bald patch was noticeably smaller as new hairs started to grow.
“While it might not provide an instant-fix, TCM helps ensure that balance on the inside shows on the outside,” says Ms Lin.
1 , 6, 10 Zhao Xiaolan and Pauline Couture, Inner Beauty: Looking, Feeling and Being Your Best (Vintage Canada Edition 2012)
2 Leigh, W. (2013, June 19). Hair loss... on a woman? It's happening to increasing numbers of us - and it eats away at your femininity like an acid . Retrieved from Mail Online Website: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2344666/Hair-loss--woman-Its-happening-increasing-numbers-eats-away-femininity-like-acid.html
3 The Hair Society. (2015, January 19). Hair Loss Statistics. Retrieved from The Hair Society Website: https://thehairsociety.org/hair-loss-statistics-the-facts/
4 Statista. (2016). Value of the hair loss treatment market worldwide in 2010 and 2017 (in billion U.S. dollars). Retrieved from Statista.com: https://www.statista.com/statistics/489025/value-of-the-global-hair-loss-treatment-market/
5, 7 Kate O’ Brien and Troy Sing, Qi! Chinese Secrets of Health, Beauty and Vitality (C Licence Pte Ltd 2005)
8 Hafner, C. (2016). What Happens When You Visit a TCM Practitioner? Retrieved from Taking Charge of your Wellbeing website: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/traditional-chinese-medicine/what-happens-when-you-visit-tcm-practitioner
9 Straits Times “Mind Your Body” health supplement, 8 May 2014, pg 20