By Mary Carpenter
HAIR LOSS is what drove Pittsburgh anesthetist C.T. to look ever farther afield— after years of debilitating malaise with no clear diagnosis or successful treatment. Eventually choosing functional medicine practitioners, C.T. received test results that indicated toxicity from a range of causes, including heavy metals, especially mercury, as well as mold—all to blame for excessive inflammation underlying her difficulties; and she received a detailed plan for healing.
Soon after that came the Covid pandemic with an explosion of hair-loss complaints—also linked to inflammation and traced primarily to stress or in some cases to post-viral inflammation after infection. Worry-related stress is the most common cause of telogen effluvium, temporary hair loss (more common in women than men), which can also follow illness and childbirth.
Appreciation of functional, also called integrative or complementary medicine, appears to be growing—with its success at treating chronic complaints not resolved, and often not taken seriously, by traditional physicians. At the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, a study found better outcomes for new patients —who see a registered dietician and a health coach and have the option of meeting with a behavioral health therapist—compared to those not enrolled in the program.
For hair loss, environmental toxins as well as medications— antibiotics and antidepressants, weight-loss and cholesterol-lowering drugs—can play an important role. One-sided hair thinning often follows trauma, such as a head injury; hair treatments or styling, including relaxers and tight braids; regularly sleeping on the same side; and repetitive behaviors, including trichotillomania.
Among pandemic hair-loss sufferers, treatments have focused on supplements such as biotin—becoming known as a “hair growth supplement,” although its efficacy is not agreed on by dermatologists or well established by scientific studies. Sales have soared for biotin-containing products such as Nutrafol—which also contains vitamin A, Vitamin D and zinc—and RevitaLash Thickening shampoo and conditioner.
The supplements promise to stimulate hair growth, which take three months or so to kick in but with less risk of side effects than older remedies like topical Rogaine, or minoxidil; or expensive injections of PRP (platelet-rich plasma therapy using the patient’s own blood), although that may work better for genetically linked female or male-pattern baldness.
But combating inflammation as an underlying cause of hair loss along with chronic ailments, notably fatigue and pain, usually begins with diet: A wide variety of options range from eliminating different combinations of sugar, gluten, dairy and alcohol to more extreme paleo- plus-keto combinations that can exclude all carbs, including some fruits and most grains. Other regimens add healthy foods—notably fermented preparations such as kimchi and kefir, which contain probiotics that support the body’s immune system—as well as supplements.
For years, C.T. had visited physicians who appeared stumped by her condition and “blindly prescribed pharmaceutics that produced uncomfortable side effects and led to little improvement,” she said. For her new specialists, she noted, the challenge was to reduce inflammation without causing more harm.
Toxic-element testing found elevated levels of mercury—leading C.T. first to replace her old amalgam, mercury-containing fillings and to avoid eating seafood high in mercury. But for detoxing, she explained, plants are the best candidates: they “clean pollution in water, air and soil, and can pull toxins from the body as well.”
(“Plant detox” has different meanings depending on the toxins targeted and the parts of the body involved: “juice cleanse” detox usually refers to clearing general toxins from the colon in the absence of specific medical issues, which has little scientific support. But whole-body detox regimens generally begin with both chronic health complaints and extensive medical testing. For both C.T. and M.L., a former subject of a MyLittleBird post, specific health complaints along with their own formal medical training helped guide choices of practitioners and detox plans.)
After tests detected six heavy metals above reference levels, every day C.T. drank fresh teas made with cilantro, parsley, ginger and turmeric, as well as juice extracted from a head of celery, although it tasted “awful.” Compared to IV chelation, a serious medical procedure used by some for heavy-metal detoxing that mechanically removes and cleans the blood, C.T. considers plant detox a “gentle chelation.”
Mercury is the most destructive of toxic heavy metals—the “silent killers of the 21st century,” according to neurobiologist Dietrich Klinghardt, who practices in Germany and Washington State. Heavy-metal toxins stored in the body cause immune system deficiency, according to Klinghardt, who found a direct correlation between stored toxins and infectious pathogens.
Because skin is the organ with the largest permeable surface area, C.T. explained, weekly infrared saunas as well as daily baths with bentonite clay helped with heavy-metal removal. And she added twice-daily capsules of Advanced Cellular Zeolite, made from volcanic ash, as well as activated charcoal capsules to remove circulating toxins extracted by the detox agents.
Also, to replace antioxidants depleted by the toxicity, she took glutathione, which the body relies on to regulate antioxidants and helps protect cells from damage. And to counter the demineralization of bones, she added daily supplements of Trace Mineral Drops, a preparation of concentrated minerals.
Homeopathic preparations formed a cornerstone of C.T.’s detox, including incrementally increasing amounts of Renelix, apoHepat and Itires, each of which contains ingredients, such as apis mellifera, colchicum, mandragora root and echinacea. And finally, she added CBD products that contain a “tiny” amount of THC—specifically the fabled “Rick Simpson Oil.”
C.T. worked on the regimen over “quite a year of treatment,” she said. Afterwards, retesting showed her heavy metals at an acceptable level; her energy had returned; and her hair grew back. Because of ongoing exposure to the air and water, as she explained it, she continues to drink the teas and keeps to a diet that’s “always anti-inflammatory—sugar to a minimum, etc.”
For C.T., both her medical training and her debilitating health issues contributed to her belief in treatments like homeopathy —a belief that C.T. acknowledges may be necessary for whatever role the placebo effect plays in their success, in the absence of rigorous scientific evidence. She pointed to the precedent of acupuncture, for which anecdotal evidence slowly accumulated to mobilize the scientific research that ultimately documented its efficacy.
Without the motivation of disabling chronic health complaints, the lack of scientific support affects my ability to believe and thus my interest in experimenting with alternative treatments like homeopathy. But I am impressed by how these options help others when traditional medicine has failed. For hair issues, on the other hand, I strongly believe in the benefits of silk pillows, which at least give me a good reason to splurge on this luxury.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical issues in health and medicine.