When faced with hair loss, men and women want to know the cause so they can stop or slow the process. In some cases, such as when hair loss is caused by a genetic tendency or fluctuating hormone levels during menopause, nothing can be done to stop hair from thinning. In other cases, hair loss is a sign of a medical condition, such as a loss of adrenal function, that must be treated.
The adrenals are grape-sized glands located just above the kidneys, explains the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, or the NIDDK. The adrenal glands produce several hormones, including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, required for normal body functions, as well as the stress hormone cortisol.
The adrenal glands produce cortisol in response to stress, write nurse practitioners Marcy Holmes and Marcelle Pick on their website Woman to Woman. The stress can be from major life events—for example, job loss, death of a family member or a serious illness—but it can also come from everyday events such as lack of sleep, skipping meals, traffic jams or financial difficulties. Although the adrenal glands are equipped to help the body deal with crises, the glands are not designed for prolonged periods of stress. Chronic stress, even at low levels, can cause adrenal fatigue. The adrenal glands produce cortisol at the expense of other hormones, which become unbalanced. In men, the testes make up for the loss of testosterone production by the adrenal glands, says the NIDDK. In women, however, the drop in levels of testosterone and its precursor, called DHEA, is more noticeable, especially prior to and during menopause when the ovaries cease hormone production. The lack of DHEA leads to hair loss. Other symptoms of adrenal fatigue include weight gain, fatigue, depression, insomnia and a suppressed immune system.
Adrenal fatigue is not a recognized medical condition, notes Todd B. Nippoldt, MD, on the Mayo Clinic website. Adrenal insufficiency, which is when the adrenal glands no longer produce adequate levels of hormones, is a recognized condition that must be treated. Adrenal insufficiency is unrelated to high stress levels, and the effect of chronic stress on adrenal gland function is unproven. Infection, autoimmune disorders or cancer may affect the adrenal glands and lower or halt hormone production, explains the NIDDK. Symptoms of adrenal insufficiency are the same as for adrenal fatigue.
Treatment for adrenal insufficiency is corticosteroids, for example hydrocortisone, prednisone or dexamethasone, says the NIDDK. Intravenous fluids may be necessary in severe cases. Holmes and Pick recommend multivitamin supplements for treatment for adrenal fatigue. They also recommend that you reduce stress, practice relaxation techniques, and get adequate rest and moderate exercise.
Adrenal insufficiency may be life threatening if left untreated, warns the Merck Manual. Without treatment, adrenal insufficiency can lead to severe abdominal pain, low blood pressure, extreme weakness, kidney failure, shock and possibly death. Supplemental testosterone is rarely required, but synthetic DHEA supplements may improve quality of life. The condition has no cure but is controlled with continued corticosteroid treatment. Always have a medical exam to rule out underlying conditions before using vitamins and lifestyle remedies for adrenal fatigue, Holmes and Pick urge.