14/08/2012 13:17 | By Tamara Hinson, contributor, MSN Her

A guide to dealing with alopecia

Naomi Campbell and Joanna Rowsell have very different lifestyles but they've both got something in common. The notoriously feisty supermodel and gold-medal-winning athlete are both suffering from premature hair loss - otherwise known as alopecia - albeit caused by very different circumstances.

Joanna Roswell and Naomi Campbell (© Reuters)

Joanna Roswell was diagnosed with alopecia areata when she was 10 years old. When she was 16, her hair briefly grew back, only to fall out again several months later. Alopecia areata is the most common form of alopecia (hair loss) and affects one in 100 people. It's thought that the hair loss is caused by the body's immune system attacking itself.

There are several causes for premature hair loss in women. "Female premature hair loss can occur for various reasons," says Florida-based hair-loss expert Dr Marty Sawaya. "These range from nutrition to traction (caused by tight braids, chemical treatments and extensions) in addition to what's known as effluviums - massive shedding of hair caused by a range of triggers including anaemia, crash dieting, or stressful events. Most of these conditions are temporary and women can recover with time if the condition or reason is alleviated."

Dr Raghu Reddy, a hair-loss expert based at Harley Street's Private Clinic, doesn't think that premature hair loss in women is becoming more widespread - it is just that more women are starting to speak out about the issue. "I'm not convinced that hair loss in women has become more common - it's possible that increased awareness has simply led to more women seeking help," says Dr Reddy.

Because there is a range of reasons for premature hair loss, it's very important to seek help early on. "As hair loss in women is most commonly caused by an underlying medical problem, if the medical reason is diagnosed - and the earlier the better - then in many cases hair loss in women can be reversed," says Dr Reddy. "The most important thing for women to do is to discover whether the hair loss is a symptom of an underlying medical condition."

Sudden lifestyle changes - whether it's sudden weight loss or periods of stress - can affect hair growth because these events can interfere with our body's natural cycles. "Hair has a normal growth cycle and needs a healthy body and scalp in order to be able to go through this normal growth cycle," explains Dr Jamie MacKelfresh, assistant professor of dermatology and pathology at Emory University's School of Medicine. "Stress can cause a shock to the body, disrupting the normal hair growth cycle which can cause hair loss or worsen hair loss which has already started."

There's no denying that increasing numbers of extension-loving celebrities are being papped with bald patches, with TOWIE's Jessica Wright and Naomi Campbell proving just how damaging such treatments can be. "We're seeing more and more examples in the media of hair loss in women which have been caused by the over-use or improper use of hair extensions," points out Dr Reddy. "Naomi's hair loss seems to be largely due to the use of hair extensions over a very long period of time. This has put a lot of traction on Naomi's existing hair. The overall result of all of this is the gradual thinning of the hair, causing permanent hair loss over time."

In Naomi's case, her extensions have damaged her natural hair, while it's highly likely that the glue used to apply the extensions has also suffocated the follicles and prevented nutrients from being absorbed. "Over-styling and applying added pressure to hair in the form of extensions causes a breakdown of the hair cuticle, thus exposing the cortical fibres creating hair fractures and eventually breakage," explains leading trichologist Trisha Buller. "Over a period of time the decrease in hair density from the breakage will leave the hair looking and feeling finer and thinner, and the hair growth rate will also be affected."

Hair loss caused by extensions is known as traction alopecia. Traction alopecia is caused by force being applied to the hair, and can also be caused by overly tight braiding and use of chemicals. If you're a fan of extensions, hair should be allowed to recover for three months between fittings. It's inevitable that some hair will be pulled out during the removal process, and it takes around three months for the hair to recover.

Sadly, research has shown that hair loss is still a condition people are reluctant to seek help about. "Hair loss now affects 41% of people in the UK according to a new report," says Trisha Buller at www.managinghairloss.com. "Despite the high incident rates and the far reaching consequences of hair loss, the report revealed that 41% of people wouldn't visit the doctor about their hair loss as they believe they would be unable to help. Sixty-nine per cent of those suffering hadn't sought any kind of treatment for their hair loss at all.

However, with Joanna Rowsell's rise to stardom, perhaps things are about to change. A recent survey revealed that more than half (55%) of hair-loss sufferers would be more inclined to seek treatment if celebrities or public figures were more open about the condition. Joanna is reluctant to become the poster girl for premature hair loss, but it's surely inevitable that the rise to fame of such a promising athlete will help others suffering from the same condition. "If I can make a difference to young girls with the same issue then that's a responsibility," admits Joanna. "If they can look at me and think it's not the end of the world and they can still do what they want to do, that's pretty amazing." As for Naomi? We'd love to be proved wrong, but we have a sneaking suspicion it will take more than her latest follicular faux pas to kerb her love of extensions...

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