Menopause refers to the time in a woman’s life when her ovaries stop functioning. As the ovaries are the main source of oestrogen and progesterone, a drop in these hormone levels will affect certain female characteristics such as body shape and body hair.
This hormonal imbalance can lead to a proportional excess of androgens (male hormones) over female hormones. Androgens tend to shrink hair follicles, resulting in shorter hair growth and increased hair loss on the head, as well as increased hair growth on the rest of the body, including more facial hair. This tendency rarely leads to the baldness common in ageing men, but it does lead to noticeable thinning. You see the opposite effect during pregnancy when high levels of female hormones ensure thick, luscious hair.
Hair follicles are tube-like structures that extend from the lower levels of the skin to the surface. At their base is the bulb; its cells divide every 1 to 3 days, faster than any other cells in the body. The follicle is surrounded by a hair shaft made of layers of hard protein called keratin. The lower layers contain the hair’s pigment, giving it its colour. The hair cycle involves a growing stage, a resting stage and a shedding stage. At any one time, hairs on our head will be in all different stages of their cycle, so that they don’t all shed at once, for example, as they do in other mammals.
In the growing stage, the cells in the bulb divide rapidly to produce a new hair that when pushed outward will push out the previous hair that is no longer growing. Scalp hair can stay in this active phase for 2-6 years, so that hair can grow long. Body hair has a much shorter active phase of 30 to 45 days, which explains why eyelashes, eyebrows, body hair are shorter than the hair on your head.
The active phase is followed by a resting phase of about 18 weeks in which the sheath shrinks and creates what is known as a club hair at the root that will be shed in the shedding phase. Causes, such as stress, menopause, illness, poor diet or a combination of all 4, which accelerates ageing, extend the resting phase and shorten the growing phase, so that hairs do not grow as long anymore and thinning occurs. A hair follicle is programmed to have a certain number of cycles before dying, so if the growth cycle becomes shorter, that hair follicle will die sooner.
It’s a good idea to look at lifestyle changes which support hormonal balance. Hormones work as an orchestra in the body; when in balance, the result is optimum health and well-being, but, when one hormone goes off-balance, it has a disrupting influence on the whole symphony. Human growth hormone (HGH) has been identified as the body’s master hormone, the conductor that keeps all members of the orchestra in tune, in step and best contributing to the greatest good of the whole. Its levels decline as we age, but it can be naturally promoted by reducing your stress levels and the body’s production of cortisol.
However, like with greying, our tendency to lose our hair as we age is also largely hereditary. It depends significantly on the sensitivity of our hair follicles to male hormones. Some women will experience noticeable hair loss during menopause (as well as at other times of hormonal imbalance, e.g.. after childbirth) and some will not.
If you’re finding symptoms of menopause hard to manage, always see your healthcare professional in person and talk through your options.