Having a headful of thick, lustrous hair is everyone’s dream. A receding hairline or thinning hair makes one look older and sickly, while lush locks give an appearance of vitality and youth. However, it’s an entirely different ball game where body hair is concerned.
For men, body hair is considered normal, with some men even going for moustache or chest hair transplants to look more manly. Not so for women though. For women, having hair growing in places other than the head and pubic area is already a nuisance.
So it isn’t hard to imagine the psychological and emotional agony when the hair growth in these areas is exceptionally prolific! There are two types of abnormal body hair growth – hypertrichosis and hirsutism. Both have different characteristics, causes and management methods.
In the traditional days of the circus, people used to be intrigued by the “bearded woman” or “monkey man”, human exhibits with abnormally thick body hair that made them resemble our primate cousins.
Hypertrichosis, a condition where excessive hair can grow in any part of the body, can happen in both men and women. The cause of hypertrichosis is not known. Congenital hypertrichosis, which is present at birth, is linked to genetic disorders. Acquired hypertrichosis, which manifests in later life, is believed to be caused by other medical conditions, such as certain cancers, metabolic disorders, anorexia nervosa (deliberate starvation) or drug/chemical use. The condition, known as werewolf syndrome in severe cases, is fortunately rare around the world.
Hirsutism is quite a common condition and many women struggle to find solutions for their hairiness. Women with hirsutism have thick, black hair on areas such as the face (upper lip or chin), thighs, legs, chest and back, making them look and feel unfeminine and ugly.
The main causes of hirsutism are genetic dysfunction and an excessive amount of the male hormone androgen. Some women with hirsutism also have other conditions such as acne, oily skin, hair loss, an enlarged clitoris and a deep, manly voice.
Hirsutism can be caused by several factors, the most common being polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS, caused by unbalanced sex hormones, also presents with other conditions such as obesity, irregular periods, infertility and ovarian cysts. Regulating PCOS usually helps in resolving the hirsutism as well.
Other causes include Cushing’s syndrome, where the body is producing too much cortisol (the stress hormone!) or you are on prednisone (a steroid) for a prolonged period; and congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a birth condition where the adrenal glands produces too much cortisol and androgen.
Some medications and other conditions such as tumours, can also cause hirsutism.
I hate being hairy!
Although hirsutism by itself does not have any physical implications, it can adversely affect self confidence and quality of life. Women with hirsutism are often too embarrassed to don swimwear, and are often depressed and self-conscious after bearing the brunt of jokes and snide remarks.
There is no permanent cure for both hirsutism and hypertrichosis, so people with these hairy conditions need to find both physical, as well as psychological ways, to manage their conditions. The most common methods used as treatment are mainly hair-removal techniques such as shaving, plucking, waxing, electrolysis or bleaching.
In recent years, laser treatments for hair removal have removed the need for the painful techniques mentioned. Using laser for hair removal also reduces the risk of getting irritated skin or inflamed hair follicles.
In some cases, contraceptive pills may work to prevent the hair from reappearing. Women who are planning to start a family should be counselled on the use of contraceptives before administering the pills. Other types of medications used to manage hirsutism are usually the same ones used in PCOS, such as androgen-receptor blockers, androgen suppressants and 5 alpha-reductase inhibitors.
These medications suppress the hormone androgen and regulate the production of testosterone, the main cause of excessive body hair. The problem with medications is that they can take up to six months before effects can be seen and need to be taken until the underlying problem is tackled at its root. Also, your hair is likely to return if you stop taking them before addressing the underlying problem.
Insulin is closely connected to body hair growth because high insulin levels cause androgen levels to rise. As such, keeping insulin levels within control can help slow down hair growth in all the unwanted places.
Research suggests that women with excessive body hair should avoid dairy products as such products contain IGF-1, a hormone in dairy that promotes the growth phase of hair follicles. Reducing sugar intake will also help, not only in lowering insulin levels, but also to prevent obesity, which will worsen body hair growth. Supplements that help glucose metabolism such as vitamin B complex, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and omega-3 may also help.
Check with your doctor before starting on any supplements, especially if you are on other medications. Regular exercise keeps your weight down and prevents obesity, which encourages body hair growth. Exercise also may decrease excessive cortisol levels and creates a positive outlook to your condition.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar,
Published on September 6, 2015, Star Newspaper