What Is DHT? How Dihydrotestosterone Impacts Hair Loss and Growth
Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is a hormone. Closely related to testosterone, DHT is often thought of as a “male sex hormone” but it plays important roles in both male and female development and adult health.
DHT can also have a direct impact on hair follicle function. Can DHT cause hair loss? Is there a way to prevent hair loss associated with DHT? Read on to uncover more about this important hormone and how it functions in the body, along with how it might impact hair growth and hair loss, and tips for restoring glorious hair wellness ASAP.
What Is DHT, Exactly?
Dihydrotestosterone is a powerful metabolite of the hormone testosterone, which means that DHT is actually made from testosterone. And while testosterone and DHT are often referred to as “male sex hormones,” they’re found in the bodies of both men and women.
For males, DHT plays an important role in the development of male sex characteristics in the womb, and later on during puberty in the development of facial and body hair, increased muscle mass and a deep voice. Less is known about DHT’s functions in females, though it is thought to impact the triggering of puberty and the development of pubic hair. In adulthood, DHT continues to be more essential to male physiology but it is involved in sebaceous gland activity and hair growth in both men and women. It’s also an important precursor for other hormones.
Your body converts about 10% of its circulating testosterone into DHT with the help of the 5-alpha reductase enzyme. And while the DHT hormone behaves similarly to testosterone in the body, DHT is more easily used and exerts stronger effects than testosterone. “DHT or dihydrotestosterone is the most potent androgen hormone in your body,” explained Dr. Alex Robles, a board-certified OB-GYN. This is largely because DHT binds to androgen receptors (AR) more easily and for longer than testosterone does.
This is where things can get tricky, though, since increased levels of DHT have been linked to medical conditions like hirsutism (abnormal facial hair and body hair growth growth in females), benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), and prostate cancer. Not only that, but it can negatively impact hair follicles, too.
How Does DHT Impact Hair Growth and Loss?
Hormones play an important role in the healthy functioning of our hair follicles, and androgens (the group to which both testosterone and DHT belong) figure prominently in how each follicle produces hair and cycles through the growth and resting phase of its typical cycle.
Androgens also seem to particularly impact the follicles in our scalp, where, in conjunction with a genetic predisposition, these hormones can contribute to a hair loss condition called androgenetic alopecia.
Androgenetic alopecia (AGA) is the most common hair loss condition out there, and it goes by several different names:
- Male pattern baldness
- Female pattern baldness
- Male pattern hair loss
- Female pattern hair loss
- Androgenic alopecia
No matter what you call it, though, AGA is a hair loss condition affecting about 50 million men and 30 million women in the United States.
"This type of hair loss is characterized by gradually receding hairlines and thinning of the hair on the scalp. In some cases, DHT can also cause inflammatory scalp conditions that can lead to hair loss,” said Dr. Cheryl Rosen, medical doctor and founder of Bow Tied Life.
If you’re genetically predisposed to developing AGA, it typically means there are variations in your androgen receptor genes that will ultimately make your hair follicles more sensitive to DHT. This DHT sensitivity causes the follicles on your scalp to shrink over time (a process called miniaturization), becoming smaller and weaker. Hair will become finer, thinner and eventually the follicle will die and stop growing hair altogether.
Not only do follicles become small and weaker, but DHT shortens the length of the growth cycle, as well. Hair normally cycles through an active growth phase, which can last anywhere from two to six years, followed by a resting phase of about three months. In AGA, the growth cycle is shortened and, once a hair is shed, it might take the affected follicle longer to start a new cycle.
Get the Full Picture: Androgenetic Alopecia Explained
What Are DHT Blockers?
Since pattern hair loss is closely tied to DHT, blocking the synthesis of this hormone has become one of the most viable options for treating AGA.
“DHT blockers” is a blanket term that refers to medications and supplements that block the production of DHT by inhibiting the 5-alpha reductase enzyme needed to convert testosterone to DHT. So in other words, DHT blockers effectively prevent DHT from being produced in the first place.
While there is more scientific research supporting medications designed to block DHT production, some natural supplements may also inhibit the 5-alpha reductase enzyme, as well.
There are two prescription 5-alpha reductase inhibitors on the market currently used to treat androgenetic hair loss.
Finasteride (Proscar, Propecia) is a prescription tablet taken daily to manage an enlarged prostate, but as a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor it was also approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat pattern hair loss. The clinical trials for Finasteride were promising and about 87% of the 3,177 men who participated in the study saw hair loss slow with a 1 mg dose of the medication.
Dutasteride (Avodart) is another prescription medication approved by the FDA for the treatment of a condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia though it is used off-label to treat hair loss.
Dig In: 6 Foods That May Block DHT
In addition to prescription medications, there are several herbal and natural compounds that are showing promise in blocking DHT production. While all of these natural DHT blockers show promise, more clinical research in men and women is needed.
Saw palmetto is probably the best known natural DHT blocker. One study combined saw palmetto with another herbal mixture called trichogen veg complex (TVG) and treated men with AGA for four months. About half of participants (48%) saw an improvement in hair density. Another study focusing on men with AGA found that about 38% of participants saw improvement after 12 months of treatment.
Pygeum bark comes from the bark of the African cherry tree and it has been widely used as a supplement with DHT-blocking ability to help treat enlarged prostates. Little research has been done looking at pygeum bark for hair loss, though in one study researchers combined saw palmetto and pygeum bark to treat post-menopausal women experiencing AGA. After 16 weeks of treatment the participants did see an increase in actively growing (anagen phase) hair.
Pumpkin seed oil is also showing promise as a DHT blocker. One clinical study looked at men with AGA, and treated them with 400 mg of pumpkin seed oil for 24 weeks. About 40% of participants saw improvement in hair density by the end of the trial.
Holistic Hair Health From the Inside Out
If you’re concerned about how DHT might be impacting your hair growth, or if you suspect you might have AGA, be sure to speak with your primary doctor or dermatologist. The best way to manage hair thinning and loss is by understanding and treating the root cause, and a doctor can help you get to the bottom of things.
Aside from identifying and treating the causes of hair thinning, shedding or loss, there are several things you can do to support a healthy body and mind: Both of which have measurable effects on your hair health!
Eat Well: A healthy, varied and balanced diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, proteins and fats is the best way to get the variety of vitamins and minerals needed for healthy hair growth.
Be Gentle: Try to prioritize hair care practices that won’t put extra stress on your follicles: skipping tight hairstyles, chemical treatments and heat styling when you can. Choose natural vegan shampoos and conditioners that leave out irritating artificial ingredients and toxins.
De-Stress: “Chronic stress is associated with an increase in hormones such as cortisol, which may kill off newly growing hairs,” said Dr. Alex Spinoso, medical doctor and founder of Genesis Lifestyle Medicine. Good news: There are several ways you can reduce the stress hormone cortisol while making yourself feel good.
Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is a hormone that is involved in the normal functioning of hair follicles, and it is involved in a common hair loss condition called androgenetic alopecia. There are several options, both prescription and supplemental, that can be helpful in decreasing DHT levels. If you’re concerned about how DHT might be affecting your hair growth, be sure to speak with your doctor.
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