Information and Solutions for Men and Women

Free Radical Damage Can Cause Hair Loss

Free radicals can damage hair cells and lead to hair loss.

Like most people, you’ve probably heard of free radicals—dangerous compounds in our bodies that wreak havoc in the form of oxidative stress and cause disease. They can damage cell structures and DNA and even destroy cells—including hair follicles.18 But what exactly are free radicals?

The Making of a Free Radical

Our bodies undergo many natural reactions all the time as an essential part of living, including oxidation-reduction reactions that result in the transfer of electrons from one molecule to another. Adding one electron (typically in the form of a hydrogen atom) to an oxygen-containing molecule is referred to as reducing that molecule, while taking an electron away from a molecule oxidizes it. These oxidized molecules are referred to as free radical reactive oxygen species (ROS) or free radicals for short. Highly unstable, these free radicals then create a cascade of oxidative reactions by stealing electrons from other molecules in order to stabilize themselves and in the process creating more free radicals. Antioxidants are molecules that can stop these reactions from cascading out of control and causing cell damage by donating an electron without becoming free radicals themselves.56

Under normal healthy conditions the body reacts to the presence of free radicals by activating antioxidant defense mechanisms, including antioxidant enzymes and anti-apoptotic proteins (e.g., Bcl-2, which protect against cell death and damage by reducing free radicals. Some of the antioxidant enzymes known to protect hair follicles include:57

  • superoxide dismutase
  • high catalase
  • glutathione peroxidase
  • methionine sulfoxide reductase

Research suggests that as we age our antioxidant capacities become impaired and cannot keep up with neutralizing naturally-occurring free radicals as well as those that are induced from environmental factors (such as cigarette smoke and UV radiation).18, 58 Certainly age-associated dietary deficiencies may contribute to decreased natural antioxidant production, since many vital nutrients (e.g., copper, manganese, selenium, and zinc) are needed to produce these enzymes.32, 47 In fact, one of the symptoms of these nutrient deficiencies is often thinning hair.

When free radicals are not inhibited by antioxidant molecules within the body, the oxidative damage accumulates, contributing to and causing effects of aging and further impairment of the antioxidant defense system. Evidence from scientific experiments indicates that this happens in hair follicles and melanocytes as well, which can promote hair loss (whether temporary or permanent).18, 58-59

Taking supplements that have specific antioxidant properties has been shown to increase the growth rate in otherwise healthy women with telogen effluvium18 This might prove especially useful for those suffering from conditions known to be associated with oxidative stress and where the hair loss is closely linked to those oxidative factors as well, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).60

In PCOS, research indicates that the high levels oxidative stress associated with the condition directly contributes to the increased levels of androgen hormone production by the ovaries symptomatic of PCOS. This is likely the main cause of the high rates of androgenetic hair loss seen in women of all ethnicities who have PCOS.60

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Both mitochondrial DNA and DNA in the cell nucleus.
B-cell CLL/lymphoma 2 are amply expressed in the mitochondria of melanin pigment-producing melanocytes.