Alopecia Areata is a very niche topic, effecting only 2% of the population. While certain parts of this article may not pertain to you, many parts will. AA, like most maladies, is simply a symptom of imbalance, or something out of whack that needs tending to. All of the insights listed here will benefit any malady, but especially those with AA. It can be a very lonely time dealing with an ailment that nobody has the answers to, which is why I’ve done my best to talk about the things that have helped me tame the beast of Alopecia Areata. Every person is different, and there isn’t a silver bullet for getting rid of AA, but the pointers in this post will probably get you farther than those gosh darn steroid shots that hardly work.
I was in a dressing room with bright, DMV lighting when a glint of something on my head caught my eye. Is that? No. It couldn’t be…my scalp!? It was a tiny little patch the size of a penny. “Don’t panic. You probably snagged it in a ponytail.” I tried to convince myself. Over the next few weeks, the patch grew to the size of a silver dollar on a random spot near the top of my scalp. It was a perfectly bald, shiny, solitary crop circle on the top of my head. Aside from this little spot, the rest of my hair was still thick and plentiful. It just didn’t make any sense.
Was this some type of ringworm I caught from the gym? Maybe this happened from listening to my hairdresser, and only washing my hair every few days. It just had to be some type of fungus. After wracking my brain for every possible explanation, the growing spot worried me enough to see a dermatologist.
“No ringworm. No fungus. You have Alopecia Areata.” She said, without elaborating at all on what this meant or what to expect. She addressed my panic and questions with short, vague answers. The perfect finishing touch to this appointment would have been her shrugging her shoulders, and saying “whadaya gonna do? Ya know?” She sent me away with some steroid foam. The entire visit lasted about three expensive minutes. In retrospect, I think most doctors act flippant as a defense mechanism when they have no idea about a thing.
Over the next few weeks, the spot spread to the size of a deck of cards. The foam wasn’t working at all, and it was crystal clear that this was my problem to solve, as modern medicine hasn’t been able to figure this Alopecia Areata thing out yet. I took a deep dive into getting to the bottom of things.
At its largest, my spot grew to the size of a softball. It would have kept growing had I not done the things I’ll be sharing with you today. That is one thing I’m certain of.
Here are the insights I’ve gleaned, and how I knocked Alopecia Areata on it’s ass.
Alopecia Areata is classified as an autoimmune disease.
This is something my dermatologist and doctor failed to mention, but it is important to know. This means it is happening from inside your body, and no amount of creams, potions, or lotions are going to rectify this. AA needs to be addressed from the inside out.
This will save you tons of time and money on all the gimmicky “treatments”, pills, potions, and scams directed at the less knowledgable, more vulnerable people with AA. That snake oil isn’t for you, because you know it’s in your power to heal from the inside.
This applies to the steroid creams and injections given by dermatologists. While they may help a little, these topical treatments are the equivalent of trying to put out a blazing fire with a squirt gun.
Tackling AA from the inside is the high powered hose you’ll need to fully extinguish the fire. There is also some evidence that points to corticosteroids making autoimmune diseases worse in the long run. This is due to the fact that they can exacerbate intestinal permeability (which is what leads to autoimmune dysfunction in the first place).
Autoimmune diseases come in many shapes and sizes, from lupus, to multiple sclerosis, to hoshimoto’s. What it boils down to, in lay terms, is that your body is attacking a part of itself. In AA, that part under attack happens to be hair follicles in random spots, usually on the scalp and beard.
A Symptom, NOT a Disease
Call me daft, but I think labeling AA as a “disease” gives it far too much power. A better way to think of it is a symptom, rather than some random catastrophic entity crashing into your life. “Symptom” denotes that there is a root cause of some larger problem that needs addressing. Whereas “disease” seems like a curse you’re stuck with, something that happens to you, that you have no control over. Alopecia areata is a fancy way of saying your hair fell out in random patches because of an underlying factor, and once you fix that underlying factor, it will go away. Simple as that.
You don’t have alopecia areata. You are experiencing alopecia areata, a hiccup in your immune system, due to a mix of internal and external triggers, many of which, you can change.
Alopecia Areata is NOT a life sentence.
Do not to give the spot/spots on your head more power than they deserve. Don’t get too comfortable latching onto your “disease”. Don’t give it a home. It won’t be staying long, that is, unless you wallow in it. Don’t acquiesce to the siren song of being “an innocent victim of this terrible disease”, of sharing war stories all day on forums and Facebook groups. If you create enough space for any ailment in your life, it will get comfortable and start spreading out in the middle of your living room, eating your food, and burping on your couch.
Talk about it with a few close friends if you have to. Get your fears off your chest to the strong-headed people in your life who will tell you “of course it’ll grow back. Now shut up about it! Where are we getting lunch?”
It may feel like the biggest deal in the world to you. The pain of being a woman in today’s society with a bald patch or patches on your head isn’t lost on me. I get it. But know that coming at it with a calm, collected attitude is the foundation of healing. If there was a “healing pyramid” for Alopecia Areata, keeping calm and Zen would be the biggest chunk on the bottom, holding everything else up. Don’t talk, think, or stress about it 24/7.. a mistake I made in the first three month, which didn’t help things at all.
Alopecia and Stress
Stress wreaks havoc on the body. It affects your hormones, brain chemistry, and perhaps most importantly, your gut lining. Stress causes leaky gut, which new research shows could be the root of most autoimmune disorders (more on that later in this post).
Consider what your body feels like when you’re stressed, or even after a stressful event. One of the hallmarks of stress is a knot in pit of your stomach. If you get quiet and still enough in stressful times, you can even feel the stress flowing through your veins!
I am convinced that stress is what triggered my bout with AA. Last year was very difficult and stressful for me. I won’t bore you with the details, but burning the candle at both ends would be putting it lightly. I’m Type A, a chronic worrier, a work addict, an exercise maniac, and have very high expectations of myself. I was growing more and more tired due to the demands I was putting on myself.
If you’re like me, you need to understand the importance of balance and stress management. Type A personalities get things done, but they also tend to neglect rest, relaxation, and restorative activities. I’m all for ambition, but this whole AA thing has taught me the importance of slowing down and being quiet. Hard work is a privilege that should be earned with an equal amount of relaxation.
It’s also imperative to change your inner dialog, which can be a huge source of stress. Again, if you have an autoimmune disease, you’re probably a Type A personality, and might get wound up about things. Shift your inner dialog from worrying, negative, anxious thoughts to more objective, nurturing ones.
Remember, any dietary and lifestyle efforts are for naught if stress is not managed, and if the monkey mind is allowed to swing from the chandeliers unchecked.
Here are some things to consider for managing your stress:
1. Cultivate peace with a daily meditation practice. As much as I struggle with meditation, it has the greatest impact on your hormones, mental well being, happiness, productivity and on and on. You may not feel anything profound during your meditations, but your brain needs that time to “reboot” from all the clutter that comes with our modern, fast paced lifestyles. Simply close your eyes, breathe in and out through your nose, and focus on that breath.
- Dr. Emmett Miller’s book Deep Healing is an amazing resource on healing through relaxation and meditation
- The Silva Method is an invaluable resource for learning to control your inner dialog, and reprogram your reactions to stress
- Yoga class is a form of moving meditation
- Qi Gong is also a form of moving meditation
2. Nourish your body with Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qui Gong. I love intense workouts, and heavy weights, and grueling bootcamp sessions. But there is a time and place for working “out”, and working “in”. All movement is medicine, and different times call for different medicines. Intense exercise staves off aging, osteoporosis, and gives a beautiful shape to the body. But it’s also a form of stress, and requires giving energy. When you’re trying to heal, you need to restore, not give your energy. Yoga is a form of exercise-medicine to help your body restore. Yoga helps release tension that builds up during the day, and gives you peace during and after you do it. Yoga also translates into real world lessons, such as remaining calm during challenging times.
3. Absolutely no drama. Choose peace, right now, from this point forward. Eliminate complaining, complainers, fighting, road rage, scary stories you might tell yourself about life, Nancy Grace true crime “news”, reality tv, gossip, arguing politics with that nut on Facebook, being the nut arguing politics on facebook, and any other drama. You just don’t need any of it right now, or ever.
4. Read Uplifting Books. Read books that make you feel good, that inspire you, that immerse you in a different world, that teach you new things. I love Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Thich Nhat Hahn, Michael Singer, Neil Gaiman, and Elizabeth Gilbert just to name a few.
5. Schedule time with friends, family, or even alone, to do something new and fun. Even if you’d rather “do something important”. Fun time is important. This is more of a personal reminder for myself than anything.
Leaky Gut and Alopecia Areata
*Warning. The following may sound like crazy, hippie, mumbo jumbo talk. But all of this is backed by scientific research and will inevitably be what the future of medicine looks like*
Every bread crumb I followed regarding immune function lead me to gut health. After three months of research, sifting through pubmed, and connecting all my personal dots, I’m confident that there is a definitive link between the gut and the immune system. Research supports this more and more. The gut is the home of the micro biome, which science is now calling “the second endocrine system” and also “the epicenter of the immune system”. The bacteria in your gut have been shown to affect mood, the types of food you crave, and even DNA expression. The state of your gut lining, villi, and microbes has a major impact on your health.
A compromised intestinal epithelial barrier (a leaky gut), is cited in several studies as playing a gigantic part of autoimmune diseases. It is also recognized as a crucial piece of the puzzle by countless authors. In her brilliant book The Paleo Approach, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne points out “Increased intestinal permeability is present in every single autoimmune disease in which it has been tested.” She goes on point out that medical literature is recognizing, “Leaky gut is a necessary precursor to autoimmune disease.” What this means for people with Alopecia Areata, and any autoimmune disease, is that healing the gut can aid in healing the ailment.
Leaky gut doesn’t necessarily cause autoimmune disease. But it is a precursor. If you mix a genetic predisposition, environmental triggers, and a leaky gut, that is the storm that causes autoimmune diseases. Even though it’s not the cause of autoimmune disease, healing a leaky gut can be the solution.
The surface of the gut is somewhat like a rolled up carpet, with little protrusions called villi that absorb the food you eat, and junctions between these villi. With leaky gut, the junctions become compromised, allowing the food you eat to leak into the blood stream. I know this sounds like a science fiction novel, but its true.
When this happens, the food that enters the bloodstream causes a reaction in the body, leading it to go into overdrive fighting these “foreign” substances.
With a compromised gut, certain foods are very irritating to the system. Mainly, these are foods with lectins, anti nutrients, and cross reactive foods. These are foods you might have eaten your entire life with no issues, but with a leaky gut, lead to autoimmune reactions.
Eating to heal Alopecia Areata, and any other autoimmune condition
Any person fed up with autoimmunity should seriously consider an Autoimmune Protocol Diet for at least three months, and see if that doesn’t help things. If I was a gambler, I’d put a huge heap of cash on the chances that an Autoimmune Protocol Diet will help. This is also known as AIP, or Autoimmune Paleo.
The long and short of it is, if you have an autoimmune condition, you must heal your gut and remove any potential irritants, or allergens.
– consume foods that heal the gut lining and calm inflammation
– abstain from foods and lifestyle habits that compromise the gut lining and raise inflammation
– avoid foods that could cause cross reactive sensitivities until the gut has healed and symptoms abate
– Slowly add foods back in, one at a time over the course of several months to see which ones do and don’t cause issues
This is essentially the paleo diet, with a few added restrictions. It’s called an Auto Immune Protocol, AIP for short, and should be considered the first line of treatment when dealing with any autoimmune diseases. Eating this way gives you a clean slate to start from, and to be your own health detective. After your symptoms clear up, you can slowly add foods back in to see what foods don’t agree with your body.
Autoimmune Protocol might sound inconvenient or unappetizing, but it sure beats the hell out of going bald from alopecia areata or losing the function of your limbs with multiple sclerosis! Think of this AIP stint as the spring cleaning and maintenance your body needs to renew itself, and heal whatever needs healing.
For more details on the Autoimmune Paleo Diet, you MUST read The Paleo Approach by Sarah Ballyntyne or The Autoimmune Solution by Dr. Amy Myers. Both are solid books, and both outline the same diet. The Paleo Approach is just much more science heavy, so if you’re into learning about agglutinins, zonulin, cytokines and all things immunity, it’s a fabulous read. If you’d rather get straight to the meat and potatoes of AIP, get Dr. Amy Myer’s book, the Autoimmune Solution.
AIP Really Worked for Me
My patch grew and grew until I started AIP. After doing AIP, I started seeing an immediate difference. It wasn’t an immediate filling in of my spot, but my hair stopped shedding. Then within a few weeks, it started filling in with fuzz. Then the outer edges of my “softball” started to grow.
Hair growth is a painfully slow process. Patience is the name of the game.
The foods to avoid on the Auto Immune Protocol:
– Coffee and all caffeine (contain phytic acid, can cause cross reactive gluten sensitivity, and disrupt cortisol levels)
-Gluten (any and all bread, crackers, pitas, cous cous, and anything containing wheat)
-Grains (even the healthy grains for now. That means brown rice, quinoa, etc)
-Legumes (chickpeas, beans, peanuts)
-Night Shade vegetables (peppers, spices with peppers, hot sauce, eggplant, tomato, anything spicy)
-Spices made from night shades (hot sauce, paprika, crushed red pepper)
-Any artificial sweeteners, stevia included
-Dairy (butter, cheese, milk, yogurt etc)
*Any oil besides coconut, olive, and avocado oil are not ideal
These are foods that should be avoided until your symptoms clear up. Your gut will probably heal enough to reintroduce most of these foods at a later time, but it’s best to abstain from them until all symptoms are gone.
The food in the “Avoid” list are there because they contain anti nutrients like lectins, prolamins, saponins, and other things that can damage the gut lining. Eggs is an item that surprises many people, as it’s loaded with nutrients. But it’s also a common allergen, so it’s best to cut it out for a short time and reintroduce after a few months.
For a very detailed explanation of the chemical compounds in these foods, and how they damage the gut, read The Paleo Approach, by Sarah Ballantyne.
So, what can I eat?
- Seafood (especially fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and sea bass)
- Offal (organ meats)
- Bone Broth
- Nutrient dense, home made soups
- Vegetables (except night shades and white potatoes)
- Coconut meat, coconut oil,
- Avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Lard (that you can save from when you cook fatty meats)
- Herbs of any kind
- Cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and any seasoning not made from nightshade
- Garlic, onions, shallots
- Sea Salt, gray salt, himalayan salt
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles
It’s not enough to cut out the trouble-maker-foods. You must focus on eating plenty of the healing, fortifying foods to resolve and prevent health issues. This means eating copious amounts of vegetables, leafy greens, bone broth, organ meats and all the rest of the nutrients from the list above. Make sure to get plenty of variety, for example, don’t eat chicken breast every day for lunch and dinner. Add in some bison, chicken thighs, beef liver, cod liver oil etc..
Some Bonus Alopecia Areata Treatment Options
- Accupunture – My spot nearly doubled in the rate of growth, thickness, and getting color back after six sessions of accupunture. It also made me feel great.
- PRP Treatments – I haven’t had PRP, but it’s a safe, new treatment that has promising studies for healing Alopecia Areata. If I knew about this sooner, I’d probably have done it!
- Probiotics – VSL#3 or Prescript assist can help the health of your gut, which is the epicenter of your immune system
- Green Juices – or anything that cools inflammation down. Anti-inflammatory foods are your best friend.
We’re lucky to live in a world where information flows freely, and we can use this magic thing called the internet to find answers to our issues. Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t have had access to things like pubmed, or the means to locate pioneers in new medicine. It’s all at our fingertips.
But even with this fancy technology, the solutions typically remain the same as they’ve always been. Eat healthy food, get fresh air, take sunshine, relax, and do the work that calls to you. Remove any of these, and you’ve got a problem. Enjoy all of these, and you’ll enjoy good health!
Thank you for spending this time with me