Understanding the Link Between Hair Growth and PCOS
Excessive hair growth, or ‘hirsutism’, is one of the many symptoms that characterise PCOS. It affects between 70-80% of the PCOS community, primarily targeting the face, upper lip, chin, neck, back, abdomen and chesti. But for some women with PCOS, excessive hair growth isn’t the issue; it’s hair loss. Though less common, some individuals will experience PCOS-related balding and hair thinning.
As you can imagine, many women find these visible aspects of PCOS both physically and emotional distressing. Abnormal hair growth can have a pervasive impact on body image, confidence and mental health. Despite this, we want to reassure you that PCOS-related hair growth can be managed with the necessary lifestyle improvements, dietary changes, supplementation, and even medication.
PCOS and hirsutism
Testosterone is an ‘androgen’ – a hormone that stimulates typically masculine characteristics and is, expectedly, found in high concentrations amongst menii. Although women produce small quantities of these hormones, those with PCOS have much greater levels. Accordingly, this skews the traditional balance of female hormones in the body. Androgens seep into hair follicles on the chest and face and, turning the typically fine hair dark and thickiii.
But there’s more to hirsutism than androgens. Insulin also plays its part. Research purports insulin can trigger excessive hair growth independently. In a controlled study of 749 women with PCOS, researchers suggested insulin – not female androgen levels – was the main contributing factor to hirsutismv.
Eat low GI
Scientifically speaking, you have to control your insulin levels to manage excessive hair growth. High insulin levels increase the amount of testosterone in your body: more insulin means more testosterone, and more testosterone means more unwanted hair.
To manage your insulin levels, we highly recommend eating foods with a low glycaemic index (GI). GI denotes the rate at which a carbohydrate affects your blood sugar levels. Eating foods with a low GI will gradually increase your insulin levels, resulting in your ovaries producing less testosteronevi. Try building your meals around low GI food options, like whole-grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, oats and legumes.
In recent years, research has suggested the hormone found in most dairy products, IGF-1, may increase the growth of hair folliclesvii. Interestingly, this hormone has also been associated with acne and sebum production, which is another common symptom of PCOS)viii. Thankfully, we live in an age with an ever-growing market of dairy alternatives: oat, soya, coconut, almond, or hemp milk are delicious, healthful substitutes.
Choose spearmint tea
There’s also a strong case to suggest drinking more spearmint tea could improve the androgen levels of PCOS sufferers. In one study, subjects with PCOS were given two cups of spearmint tea daily to measure its effect on hirsutismix. Although the investigation only lasted 30 days – admittedly, not long enough to see any noticeable changes on hair growth –researchers hinted at the tea’s anti-androgen properties. With this in mind, why not swap your afternoon coffee with a cup of spearmint?
Every PCOS woman could benefit from taking myo-inositol. Beyond supporting mood, ovulation, and energy levels, it may also improve hirsutism. A recent trial reported that excessive hair growth significantly diminished with 6 months of myo-inositol treatment, which sounds hugely promisingx. Learn more about the benefits of myo-inositol in supporting PCOS symptoms.
Medical intervention is always an option. Before embarking on a treatment plan, it’s important to note these drugs usually take 6 months to make a noticeable difference. What’s more, if you haven’t addressed the underlying problem of insulin resistance, then your hair growth is likely to return once the course of the medication has finished.
If you’re looking for a quick fix, there are many ways to topically remove hair: you can shave it, pluck it, wax it and even laser it. Of course, each treatment has its advantages and disadvantages. And it’s always worth remembering that although you’re ‘physically’ removing the hair, it can always grow back because of your androgen levels.
Although this is a quick and painless way to remove your hair, your hair may grow back darker and thicker. To achieve a smooth finish, you will also need to shave frequently.
Bleaching doesn’t technically ‘remove’ your hair – it lightens hair, making it seem less noticeable. A word of caution: this removal method may cause some irritation.
Plucking, threading and waxing
Although these forms of hair removal are traditionally more painful, they offer a longer-lasting solution to shaving and bleaching. An upper-lip wax, for instance, may last up to 6 weeks. If you can handle a little discomfort every so often, it could be worth it.
Laser hair removal
Directing a tiny beam of light at the hair follicle – which is absorbed by the melanin in the hair – laser hair removal causes hair to die. Generally, you need several treatments, but the results are very promising – not to mention long-lasting.
PCOS and hair loss
Though many women with PCOS will experience excessive hair growth on their face and body, conversely, some will encounter hair loss and thinning, often referred to as female pattern hair loss or androgenic alopecia.
As aforementioned, PCOS leads to extra androgen production, which can result in virilisation – the development of more masculine features, like hirsutism. But these surplus androgens can also trigger hair thinning, particularly near the front of the scalp.
Losing your hair can be extremely difficult to come to terms with, affecting confidence, self-esteem and even preconceived notions about femininity. Unfortunately, any PCOS-related hair loss won’t grow back naturally. However, with the correct application, it’s possible to cope and even stimulate new hair growth. Furthermore, there are several clever ways to mask hair loss.
A growing raft of evidence suggests weight loss can lower androgen levels and, therefore, help to mitigate the implications of excess androgens in women with PCOSxii. Although PCOS can make weight loss more challenging, losing even a small amount of weight – around 5-10 per cent – may support the reduction of PCOS symptoms, including hair lossxiii. Learn more about how to lose weight with PCOS and maintain motivation here.
According to a recent study, increasing your intake of zinc in the form of supplementation may improve PCOS-related hair loss and thinningxiv. The investigation purported taking 50mg of zinc for 8 weeks may aid the reduction of hair loss. Researchers hypothesized the zinc may even help excessive hair growth.
Join a support group
There’s no doubt PCOS can compromise your physical and emotional health, particularly when it leads to such visible symptoms. Finding a tribe and connecting with a community of others who share a similar experience can be enormously beneficial. Online forums and support groups provide the opportunity to get real-life insight into the best remedies and treatments available, as well as offer the chance to vent and let off steam. You can find your nearest Alopecia UK support group here.
Admittedly, this isn’t always easy. But, it’s within your reach, try to practice acceptance and come to terms with your hair loss. Remember, your identity is more than your appearance. You could make a list of all of your best qualities and consciously celebrating these fantastic attributes.
Of course, you don’t always need medical interventions to manage PCOS-related hair loss. In many cases, you can simply improve the appearance of hair loss and thinning with clever changes to how you style your hair.
For thinning hair
Fashion a shorter, layered hairstyle to add fullness and volume
Try volumizing hair products, like mousse or spray
Colour your hair to hide the appearance of thinning hair
Consider investing in hair extensions
Zig-zag your parting
For a widening parting
Experiment with parting your hair differently
Get a fringe that sits further at the top of your head
Apply a water-proof root cover-up powder on your scalp
Try a hairstyle that will cover the balding area, like a low ponytail or top knot
Consider using a silk hair scarf, hat, or hairband to hide the spot
Use a partial wig
Although PCOS-related hirsutism and hair loss can take its toll on all aspects of health, hopefully, we’ve illustrated there are many ways to cope. By making simple changes to your lifestyle, diet, supplement regime and even opting for medication if necessary, you can ease the symptoms of abnormal PCOS-related hair growth. Browse the rest of our hub to learn even more about managing PCOS.
Spritzer, P.M., et al. (2016). Hirsutism in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Pathophysiology and Management. Curr Pharm Des. 22(36): 5603-5613.
You and Your Hormones. (2018). Testosterone. [ONLINE]. Available online: http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/testosterone.aspx
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Daka, B., et al. (2013). Inverse association between serum insulin and sex hormone-binding globulin in a population survey in Sweden. Endocr Connect. 2 (1): 18-22.
Landay, M., et al. (2009). Degree of hyperinsulinemia, independent of androgen levels, is an important determinant of the severity of hirutism in PCOS. Fertil Steril. 92(2): 643-7
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Rajaeieh, G., et al. (2014). The Relationship between Intake of Dairy Products and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome in Women Who Referred to Isfahan University of Medical Science Clinics in 2013. Int J Prev Med. 5(6): 687–694.
Meinik, B. (2012). Dietary intervention in acne. Dermatoendocrinol. 4(1): 20–3.
Grant, P. (2010). Spearmint herbal tea has significant anti-androgen effects in polycystic ovarian syndrome. A randomized controlled trial. Phytother Res. (2): 186-8.
Minozzi, M. (2008). Treatment of hirsutism with myo-inositol: a prospective clinical study. Reproductive BioMedicine Online. 17 (4): 579-582.
Diamanti-Kandarakis, E. (1998). The effect of a pure antiandrogen receptor blocker, flutamide, on the lipid profile in the polycystic ovary syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 83(8): 2699-705
Moran, L. (2011). Lifestyle changes in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews.
Legro, R.S. (2012). Obesity and PCOS: implications for diagnosis and treatment. Seminars in reproductive medicine. 30(6), 496–506.
Jamilian, M. (2015). Effects of Zinc Supplementation on Endocrine Outcomes in Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Biological Trace Element Research. 170(2), 271-278.
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.