If it seems like you’re having more than your fair share of bad hair days, it might be time to take a closer look. The state of your strands can give you insight into what’s going on inside your body—from psychological issues to physical maladies. And that can be valuable for catching problems and seeking the help you need to prevent them from becoming bigger ones. If you feel like your hair is going haywire, the 7 causes below might be to blame.
1. You’re a perfectionist.
A tendency to (literally) pull at your hair, brows, or lashes when you get stressed can signal a perfectionist personality, suggests a Canadian study in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. The researchers explain it this way: When you don’t meet your own impossibly high standards, hair pulling can be a way of alleviating the frustration and dissatisfaction. But this coping tactic goes a little deeper than run-of-the-mill perfectionism—it’s a compulsive disorder known as trichotillomania, and if you’ve got it, cognitive behavioral therapy (learning a less overwhelming way to organize your workflow and deal with frustration) may help.
2. You’re going through some MAJOR stress.
It’s normal to shed 80 to 100 hairs a day, says New York City dermatologist and psychiatrist Amy Wechsler, MD. But if it looks like you’re losing more than what’s normal for you, it could be a sign of telogen effluvium, a period of (totally reversible) hair thinning brought on by psychological and physical stressors, like an illness, pregnancy, or a period of depression. The thing is, this shift often isn’t noticeable until 3 to 6 months after the event—so it can be tough to associate the cause with the hair loss.
No need to panic: If a big stressor is behind your hair loss, it’ll grow back on its own, though it can take another 3 to 6 months before it’s back to normal. In the meantime, Wechsler suggests focusing on overall wellness: Get 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep a night, do stress-busting activities, and consider taking 5 mg of biotin a day to stimulate growth.
3. You’re eating too much junk food.
If your hair looks lackluster, dull, brittle, or is thinning, it may be time to rethink what’s on your plate. “When it comes to healthy hair, your overall diet is critically important,” says Wendy Bazilian, RD, author of The SuperFoods Rx Diet. “If you’re eating a highly processed diet, any nutrients you do get are shuttled to your body’s crucial operations, like your heart and other organs,” she says. Your hair won’t turn brittle and dull after one burger-and-fry combo, but over time, strands can suffer from lack of nutrients. To prevent the issue altogether (or make up for past bad behavior), Bazilian recommends a diet heavy on whole, rather than processed foods, and full of color—that’s where fruits and veggies come in. That will give your body—and hair—what you need to stay healthy.
4. You’re not eating enough fat.
If you’ve recently slashed fat from your diet in the hopes of losing weight, your hair may respond by becoming lackluster and weak, says Bazilian. Not only does dietary fat contribute to the health of your hair, it also helps your body absorb key fat-soluble nutrients, like vitamin D, which has been associated with hair loss in women that don’t get enough. Luckily, you can eat your fat and be healthy, too—if you choose the right ones. “Focus on eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats,” says Bazilian. Consider this your license to load your cart with satisfying goodies like oily fish, avocados, dark chocolate, and olive oil.
5. You have too much testosterone.
If you notice hair loss at the crown of your head (where you’d secure a high ponytail) and dark facial hair sprouting on your upper lip or thickening hair on your arms, see if your waistline also seems wider than usual. Excess belly fat stores testosterone, which in turn stimulates hair follicles to perk up and take on the growth patterns we usually see in men, says Diana Bitner, MD, an obgyn at Spectrum Health Medical Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What you can do: eat less sugar (the American Heart Association recommends women eat only 6 added teaspoons a day, but most of us are getting far more than that) and exercise regularly to help decrease belly fat, one of testosterone’s favorite hideouts, thus reducing its alarming side effects.
Note: A condition known as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), can also be a cause of unwanted hair growth, so if you notice any fellow symptoms like obesity, irregular periods (5 months without one and you’re not menopausal), acne, and insulin resistance, see your doctor.
6. You’re at risk for dental issues.
Weird but true: a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation reveals that people who have hair disorders (like loose anagen hair syndrome, where you can pull out hair easily) due to mutations of key hair protein keratin are also more prone to cavities. Here’s why: Keratin is also key in the formation of tooth enamel, so issues with the protein result in a softer surface that has a tougher time standing up to decay-producing bacteria. Though you can’t change your genetic stars, if you have a known hair disorder, it pays to be on top of your oral hygiene game (like flossing daily and regular dental visits).
7. You’re not drinking enough water.
If your lackluster locks are accompanied by hot flashes, night sweats, and lack of energy, the common denominator is likely dehydration. “Dehydrated hair is brittle,” says Bitner. As for the hot, “Muscles that are dehydrated get hotter quicker,” she explains. The Institute of Medicine recommends getting 2.7 liters a day from beverages and water-rich foods. (That’s about four 24-ounce water bottles.) “Your skin, hair, and muscles will soak it up and you’ll love how you look and feel,” Bitner says.