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Brittle, brittle hair and hair loss are a widespread problem, which means a considerable reduction in the quality of life for many sufferers. From a biological point of view, hair is a rudiment, because the original functions such as heat insulation or protection from the sun only play an insignificant role today. Instead, the focus is on the aesthetic aspect, in which beautiful, healthy and shiny hair is usually associated with vitality, attractiveness and intensive care. In many cases, structural damage and growth disorders in hair can be attributed to stress such as frequent bleaching or smoothing, medication (e.g. antibiotics), stress or a lack of nutrients. In addition to this, brittle hair can also occur, for example, in connection with an infection or a thyroid dysfunction. Accordingly, hair breakage should not be regarded as a purely cosmetic problem, but should always be clarified with a doctor in case of doubt, so that possible health problems can be identified at an early stage.
Hair: definition and structure
The hair is long horn threads, which consist of 90% keratin, a protein that provides firmness and resilience to hair, skin and nails. In this sense, hair only occurs in mammals and, in addition to nails, sweat, fragrance and sebum glands, belongs to the so-called "skin appendages" (adnexa), which refers to all structures that arise from the skin. With a few exceptions (palms, inside of fingers, soles of the feet, nipples, lips), hair can be found on the entire outer skin of humans, whereas the mucous membranes are generally hairless. The visible and touchable part of the hair is called the "hair shaft" (Scapus), which is formed in the hair root (Radix pili). This in turn ends in the hair bulb, which stabilizes the hair and is also embedded in the skin via the so-called "hair follicle" (also called "hair follicle"). In this way, the root can absorb all the nutrients that are necessary for the structure and growth of the hair. In addition, a sebum opens into the hair follicle, which protects against drying out by the production of skin sebum.
The visible hair consists of three layers: In the middle there is the so-called "medulla", the diameter of which varies depending on the hair thickness and which ensures the stability of the hair. The hair mark is surrounded by a layer of fibers (hair bark), which consists of keratin and is the thickest of the three layers. As a result, the flexibility and tear resistance of the hair are determined by this, and there are also the pigments that give the hair its natural color. Finally, the cuticle layer forms the outermost layer of hair, which surrounds the inside of the hair and, thanks to its dense structure of multi-layered scales, acts as a "protective armor" for the hair and is responsible for the shine and smoothness of the hair.
Hair growth is a dynamic process, so a hair usually only remains for a maximum of six years, in which it goes through various phases until failure. It starts with the growth or anagen phase, which lasts about 2 to 6 years, in which the hair grows about 1 cm per month. The hair growth is followed by the transition phase (1 to 2 weeks), in which the hair is separated from the hair root and gradually pushes towards the scalp. If the hair is separated from the root, it therefore no longer receives any nutrients, so the hair cycle ends with the "telogen phase" (rest phase), in which it can take up to four months before the hair finally falls out and thereby makes a new place. This causes about 60 to 100 hairs to fall out every day, but if it is significantly more over a longer period of time, this could be a clear indication of hair loss.
There are numerous reasons for a damaged hair structure. On the one hand, a number of external (exogenous) influences can be responsible, because in everyday life there is often contact with various substances that can damage the hair under certain circumstances. Side effects of medication (e.g. antibiotics) are possible here, because certain preparations affect the vitamin status and can cause deficiency symptoms or hormonal fluctuations. Often, exogenous damage is also caused mechanically, for example by combing too hard, frequent topping or braids that are too tightly bound. Chemical influences from dyeing, tinting, perms, frequent washing with alkaline shampoos or bathing in chlorine or salt water can favor a porous hair structure, as well as constant hot blow drying or intensive sun or UV radiation.
In addition, physical-hormonal changes play an important role, because the different phases of life influence the body in general, and thus the structure of the hair, in the same way as our everyday lifestyle. In addition to pregnancy and breastfeeding, women, for example, experience numerous physical changes especially in the menopause, for example, the skin becomes thinner and the hair loses its density, smoothness and color. In many cases, problems with the hair in this phase can be attributed to a congenital hypersensitivity of the hair follicles to a breakdown product of the male sex hormone testosterone (dihydrotestosterone, in short: DHT). This is also found in the female body and is able to damage the hair roots and inhibit hair growth. When estrogen production goes down during menopause, the balance between male and female sex hormones shifts in favor of testosterone. As a result, the hair often becomes shorter and thinner and increasingly falls out.
Brittle hair after bleaching
Especially women who have bleached hair often suffer from strawy, porous hair that breaks quickly. This chemical process is far more demanding for the hair than e.g. a coloration, because an alkaline reaction first opens the outer cuticle layer, which then allows the bleaching agent (hydrogen peroxide) to penetrate the fiber layer and destroy the color pigments. While the healthy outermost layer of hair is characterized by flat, tile-like cells arranged one above the other, the protective layer of the hair is permanently damaged by the breaking open of the cells.
As a result, the hair becomes porous and feels rough and straw-like, and it also loses its shine because a rough surface can no longer reflect light that hits it. Since bleaching removes a lot of inherent moisture from the hair, it is considered the most stressful process for chemically changing the hair color. Accordingly, it is particularly important here to pay attention to intensive and correct care so that the hair copes well with this heavy use and remains healthy and shiny despite this. For this purpose, bleached hair should only be washed every other day if possible to avoid additional loss of moisture, and it is advisable to avoid frequent straightening or hot blow-drying in general. Damaged, dry hair always needs a nourishing rinse after a mild cleansing, it is also recommended to apply an intensive hair treatment once or twice a week so that severe damage can also be repaired in depth. Last but not least, care should be taken to have the tips cut about every eight weeks in order to remove existing damage and to allow healthy hair to grow back.
Porous hair due to illness
If the hair problems persist longer and / or occur in an increased form, there may also be a disease. Accordingly, a doctor should always be consulted as a precaution in this case in order to clarify the exact cause and to be able to initiate further treatment steps if necessary. With dull and brittle hair and increased hair loss, an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) is possible. In this there is an excess of thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) in the blood, which play a central role in various metabolic processes of the body and act here in principle as a kind of "driver". As a result of the overproduction, the metabolism is working at full speed, which can lead to various symptoms such as high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, hair loss, muscle pain and diarrhea, but also typical restlessness, excessive sweating, weight loss (with increased appetite), mood swings and sleep disorders hyperthyroidism.
Hypothyroidism (hypothyroidism) can also be the cause of porous hair. In this case, the thyroid gland produces too little thyroid hormone, and the disorder can be both congenital and acquired. As a result, the metabolism works slower than normal, which manifests itself, for example, in symptoms such as fatigue, reduced performance, difficulty concentrating, susceptibility to infection, weight gain or constipation. In addition to porous hair, brittle nails and dry, scaly, pale skin and increased sensitivity to cold often occur. If there is an underactive thyroid in childhood, this can even lead to a delay in physical and mental development (short stature, speech disorders, hearing loss, etc.) if left untreated. Accordingly, all babies in this country are tested for hypothyroidism a few days after birth as part of the so-called "newborn screening".
Hair shaft abnormalities
In addition, a congenital (congenital) hair shaft abnormality can lead to increased hair brittleness. These include the so-called "spindle hairs", which are medically referred to as "Monilethrix" or "Aplasia pilorum intermittens". This is an autosomal (gender-independent) dominant inherited disease, which leads to an irregular, porous hair structure. The changes usually begin early in infancy in the form of pearl cord-like thickenings and constrictions, which alternate at regular intervals along the hair shaft. The thin regions between the nodes break very easily, sometimes at the same time there are nail changes and tooth anomalies.
The so-called "pili torti" (also called "torsion hair") is a rare anomaly of the hair shaft. Characteristic here are flat hair twisted around the longitudinal axis, of which up to ten hair stand together. In children, this peculiarity can exist from birth, but often the structure of the hair only changes over time, as it becomes increasingly fragile and stops growing. Pili torti can also occur either in isolation, but also in connection with various syndromes, such as "Menkes syndrome", an inherited defect in copper metabolism that occurs almost exclusively in boys and in most cases leads to death in the first years of life .
Fragile hair due to lack
An iron deficiency - especially if it is more pronounced - can cause the hair to become thinner and drier and feel like "straw". This form of deficiency is quite common in a light form, since a large part of the population in Germany does not consume enough iron in their daily food. However, a pathological deficiency only arises when more iron is permanently lost than is ingested, which often results from malnutrition or increased blood loss (e.g. due to accident, surgery, birth, menstruation), but also e.g. can be caused by bladder or kidney stones.
If the body needs more iron than usual, the intake from food is usually increased. If this is not enough, the body's own reserves are opened, which ultimately leads to a deficiency if there is no compensation. Accordingly, the iron supply must be increased in such a situation, meat, offal, cereals, vegetables and legumes being particularly suitable here, since these foods are particularly rich in iron. However, since humans can utilize the essential trace element from animal foods much better, vegetarians and vegans or people who eat unhealthily and unilaterally for a long time also belong to potential risk groups. The same applies to competitive athletes, children and adolescents in the growth phase as well as to pregnant and lactating women, because in these cases there is an increased need, which should be balanced accordingly. Older people also often need additional iron, since they often suffer from gastrointestinal problems, and a feeling of satiety occurs more quickly in old age, which means that less food is generally consumed than usual. In addition to this, a number of other causes come into consideration, for example chronic inflammatory bowel diseases or certain medications (e.g. acetylsalicylic acid, agents for lowering cholesterol) which impair iron absorption.
If there is an iron deficiency, a wide variety of symptoms can occur, because the body needs the essential trace element above all to promote the metabolism and ensure the transport of oxygen into the body cells. If the body is not adequately cared for, typical “exhaustion symptoms” such as tiredness, exhaustion, dizziness, headache, difficulty concentrating or pallor in the face often occur. Fragile hair and nails, shortness of breath, increased susceptibility to infections, skin problems or gastrointestinal complaints also frequently occur. Severe iron loss can also lead to anemia, which in severe cases can lead to symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or rapid heartbeat.
In addition, there may be other forms of deficiency in brittle hair, which in most cases can be attributed to an unfavorable or unbalanced diet. An inadequate supply of important nutrients such as vitamin H, protein or vitamin B, for example, is possible here, which can significantly restrict the growth and structure of the hair. Calcium deficiency can also be the cause of brittle hair, which can also manifest itself as muscle cramps, feeling disorders, diarrhea, abdominal pain and frequent urination.
Treatment: save fragile hair
For beautiful and healthy hair, the hair roots, in particular, must be adequately cared for, because the hair structure is largely predetermined on its way to the surface. Accordingly, care products can often only help to a limited extent with brittle hair; instead, the focus should always be on treating the cause and using suitable protective measures. If the hair breakage is based on a disease, the first priority is appropriate therapy, for example by treating a thyroid dysfunction depending on the case by taking medication, surgery or radioiodine treatment. If external influences are responsible for the damage to the hair, special care should be taken to gently care for the hair with mild products and in this context, hot blow drying, strong sun exposure, smoothing, dyeing, bleaching and tinting should be avoided temporarily. Likewise, the hair should only be combed carefully and not too often, with the hair being treated particularly gently with a natural hair brush. In addition, tight bridges and thin hair ties should not be used for brittle, brittle hair. Instead, experts repeatedly recommend using wider terry hair ties, as these do not strain the hair as much and can therefore contribute to healthy and beautiful hair.
If the cause is a lack of nutrients, a change in diet should be carried out as quickly as possible in order to adequately supply the body with healthy, balanced and nutritious and energy-rich food. For people who are on a diet or are affected by eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, it is particularly important to take care to prevent deficiency symptoms with supplements if necessary. If this is not enough, the doctor should clarify exactly which nutrients are missing in the body so that they can be added in the next step if necessary.
Brittle hair home remedies
For brittle hair, mild hair care is particularly important so that the damaged hair is not further stressed and instead the structure and resilience are strengthened. In many cases, the surface can be smoothed at least temporarily in this way, but if the damage is already pronounced, mostly only cutting off helps. In general, dry hair that is prone to breakage should therefore only be washed with a mild, moisturizing shampoo and cared for once or twice a week with an intensive hair treatment. A quick “first aid” for porous hair can also offer a rinse with beer, because the active ingredients contained in it support the hair by repairing it strong and small damage. After washing your hair, simply pour a little beer over your hair, gently massage it in and wash it out thoroughly after a few minutes.
In addition to this, there are a number of other valuable home remedies for dry hair that can provide effective support naturally. A honey cure, for example, has proven itself here, for which a tablespoon of liquid honey is first mixed with an egg yolk and massaged into the hair. The honey-egg mixture should then take effect for 15 minutes, after which it is rinsed out thoroughly. In another variant, warm olive oil can also be added to this mixture, which gives the hair additional moisture in a simple manner. Since brittle hair is often associated with a lack of certain nutrients, various home remedies for iron deficiency can also help to get the problem under control. The main focus is on eating foods with a high iron content, which include beetroot, carrots, red berries, fennel, nuts and kernels. As a supplement, there are particularly good medicinal herbs, which, when taken alone or as tea (enriched with a little lemon), can help with iron deficiency. Here nettles and dandelions are particularly suitable, but also thyme and spearmint, and it is also useful to refine dishes with herbs (parsley, cress, etc.), because these also have a positive effect on the iron balance.
Fragile hair Schuessler salts
In natural medicine, Schüssler salts are also often used for porous hair, which are natural remedies made from mineral salts in homeopathic doses, which in most cases are administered in the form of tablets. Here, among other things, the salt No. 2 (Calcium Phosphoricum) comes into question, which is an important building agent for the whole body and can accordingly effectively support the strengthening of the hair. Silicea (salt no. 11), the "salt of the skin, hair and connective tissue", has also proven its worth in many cases for dry, brittle hair, as have salts 3 (Ferrum phosphoricum) and 8 (sodium chloratum ). In the case of brittle hair, which salts are used in which potency and in which potency should always be discussed in advance with a naturopath or a naturopathic doctor. (No)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dipl. Social Science Nina Reese
- Wolfgang Raab: Hair disorders in dermatological practice, Springer Verlag, 2012
- SchilddrüsenZentrum Köln e.V .: Underactive thyroid, (accessed: 25.09.2019), schilddruesenzentrum-koeln.de
- Jan Hastka, Georgia Metzgeroth, Norbert Gattermann: Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia, German Society for Hematology and Medical Oncology e.V., (accessed September 25, 2019), DGHO
- Dorothea Terhorst-Molawi: Dermatologie Basics, Elsevier / Urban Fischer Verlag, 4th edition, 2015
ICD codes for this disease: L67ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find yourself e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.