Hair Loss Disorder Alopecia Areata Linked to Thyroid, Celiac, Methylation

Friday, May 22, 2015
By: Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

Clumps of hair in the bathtub drain. Handfuls of hair in the hair brush. Loss of eyebrows or worse. These are often symptoms related to the autoimmune disorder alopecia areata. In the last several years, there has been a marked flurry of activity in trying to understand the devastating and disheartening disorder of alopecia areata or autoimmune hair loss. The amount of hair loss varies from person to person with the loss ranging from small round quarter size patches to total loss of all body hair include eyebrows, eye lashes, and even nostril hair. Most people don’t experience this severe loss, but none-the-less many struggle with the emotional stigma with this problem and often wonder what they can do to stop this disfiguring hair loss. Here are some helpful tips.

Alopecia Areata Linked with Thyroid, Celiac, and Autoimmune Disorders

Alopecia areata (AA) is an autoimmune disorder wherein the immune system attacks the hair follicle. It is often linked with several other autoimmune disorders. Most commonly it is linked with autoimmune thyroid problems followed by vitiligo (loss of skin pigment), rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and allergic dermatitis. Asthma, allergic rhinitis, and other type Th1 dominant autoimmune disorders may be associated. Celiac disease is another autoimmune disorder linked with alopecia. When gluten is removed from the diet, hair loss often improves. Often, if there is early onset of alopecia areata in childhood or adolescence, there is a higher risk for other autoimmune disorders to occur and vice versa.

Methylation Defects Linked with Alopecia Areata

A recent study with a different perspective showed that gene alterations with DNA methylation at the MTHFR gene 677T and other genes involved with the methylation process were linked with autoimmune hair loss. Methylation defects may affect up to 45 percent of the population or nearly one out of every two individuals.  Identifying this genetic alteration information opens the doors to a far deeper understanding. It provides powerful possibilities with nutritional support. A separate study showed similar problems with DNA methylation confirming dysregulation of these genes and alopecia.

A recent study with individuals who had AA showed a number of practical lab measurements that helps put the DNA methylation defects into perspective. The study measured levels of folate in the red blood cells (RBC) along with homocysteine and the inflammatory marker highly sensitive C-Reactive Protein (CRP). The patients with hair loss all had markedly lower levels of RBC folate. The patients who had the most severe loss had the lowest levels of folate. The CRP and homocysteine measurements were not significantly affected in this study.

Lack of folate is highly involved with the methylation process and MTHFR genes. Individuals can readily identify methylation defects through common lab testing for homocysteine elevations, methylation test panels or through commercially available genetic testing. Elevated homocysteine certainly rules in problems with methylation, but normal homocysteine lab results do not always rule out the gene defect. This may happen because of other gene mutations involved and other roadblocks with the methylation process, but these other metabolic roadblocks do not cause homocysteine to be elevated. Natural (dark, green, leafy veggies) or methylated folate and B12 forms are mandatory to bypass these roadblocks. Commercial genetic testing and methylation test panels provide eye-opening information in these circumstances. It also means that individuals who have methylation defects must use B12 and folate in their methylated forms when using supplements. Intake of non-methylated forms of these vitamins in lower quality supplements or fortified foods can actually cause a build-up and worsen the biochemistry pathways. In taking a step back and reflecting, it makes a person question the potential correlation of low quality, synthetic B vitamins added to processed foods and the marked up-swing in autoimmune disorders. Is there a cause and effect present because of these non-active, non-methylated forms of B vitamins triggering genetic and autoimmune inflammatory backlogs?

Infectious Triggers

A viral infection such as getting hit with influenza sometimes triggers the hair loss. The excess production of interferon as a response to the virus may cause the immune system to attack against the hair follicle. Other reports have discussed a link with Lyme’s disease. Once the Lyme illness resolved, the autoimmune hair loss fully recovered.

Oxidative Stress and Nutrient Depletions

A recent study published just a few weeks ago showed that patients with severe hair loss responded with hair growth when they supplemented with at least 30-40 mg of zinc and sulfur-rich amino acids. The patients had a much higher need than what their diet provided. Providing those nutrients stopped the hair follicle damage and hair loss. Sulfur-rich amino acids include cysteine and methionine found commonly in animal proteins. A significant reason why these sulfur-rich amino acids helped with hair loss is that methionine is involved with the methylation process described earlier and cysteine is vital for glutathione production. The antioxidant glutathione is critical for quenching oxidative stress and autoimmune inflammation. 

Researchers have shown that glutathione levels along with the protective SOD (Super Oxide Dismutase) antioxidant systems are depleted, often dramatically, with AA and autoimmune disorders in general. High levels of oxidative stress and inflammation cause the backbone of required nutrients cysteine, zinc, and selenium with antioxidant systems of glutathione and SOD to be depleted. This correlates directly with inadequate sulfur-rich proteins. The simultaneous lack of zinc and selenium in our soils and diets, poor diets or even poorly managed vegetarian diets will cause these inflammatory responses to magnify and cause significant disruption with detoxification, thyroid, and gut health as well. Lack of vitamin D or a vitamin D level below 30 ng/ml is another major risk factor for alopecia areata.

A Perfect Storm?

Often in looking at a patient’s history, one will see the build-up of a perfect storm before the onset of symptoms. Diets lacking in selenium and zinc are extremely common. Inadequate vitamin D intake or lack of sunshine exposure leads to common vitamin D deficiency. The sheer number of chemicals in our food supply that deplete our sulfur-rich amino acids and glutathione status absolutely takes a toll on the immune system. Add in chronic gluten intake at levels and types our bodies have never seen to this extent in modern times. High stress levels provoking oxidative stress is rampant, i.e. high levels of daily wear and tear with inadequate sleep. Add in genetic risks and provoke it with low-grade intake of synthetic folic acid and cyanocobalamin fortified foods or supplements for years followed by an infection of some sort and it becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back.

There is never one single smoking gun with autoimmune disorders including alopecia areata. As with any autoimmune disorder and inflammatory burden, identify and remove as many of the triggers as possible. Get extensive testing for gluten intolerance, methylation defects, chronic infections, and vitamin D. Address the co-existing autoimmune disorders. Consider supplementation with sulfur-rich amino acids, zinc, selenium, and methylated B vitamins and folate. By taking the burden off the body, often the innate healing response kicks in. Suffering silently and feeling helpless with hair loss disorders doesn’t have to happen. Take charge of your health today!

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