We often hear about the negative effects associated with having too high or too low levels of testosterone — such as when it comes to causing acne in women and muscle loss in men. But there’s another androgen (or hormone responsible for male characteristics) that is even more potent and equally responsible for these same types of problems: DHT.
According to research studies, it’s responsible for more than 95 percent of cases of hair loss in men (also called androgenetic alopecia).
DHT stands for dihydrotestosterone, which is an endogenous androgen sex hormone. In addition to DHT, it’s sometimes referred to as DH or 5α-dihydrotestosterone.
This hormone, which is converted from testosterone (another androgen, which basically means “male hormone”), is associated with many masculine physical characteristics. In fact, Harvard Medical School explains that the word androgen comes from the words meaning “man-maker.
According to the Society for Endocrinology, “Almost 10% of the testosterone produced by an adult each day is converted to dihydrotestosterone, by the testes and prostate (in men), the ovaries (in women), the skin and other parts of the body.”
DHT is more potent than testosterone and present in smaller amounts. The level of DHT that someone has depends on the amount of testosterone present.; the more testosterone that’s available, the more that’s converted to dihydrotestosterone.
Testosterone production is controlled by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which are considered the “control centers” of the brain.
Although this hormone is often associated with thinning hair, acne and other unpleasant symptoms, we know that there are also DHT benefits that pertain to both sexes. Below are some of the important roles that DHT has, as described by the Endocrine Society:
Does DHT build muscle? To some extent it helps adults maintain muscle mass as they age, just like testosterone does.
It also benefits reproductive health, fertility and sex drive.
The American Hair Loss Association states, “While testosterone is at the core of the balding process, DHT is thought to be the main culprit.”
It’s now believed that DHT contributes to androgenetic alopecia (male or female pattern baldness) by binding to receptors in the oil glands of scalp follicles, causing them to shrink.
In order for testosterone to be converted to DHT, an enzyme called Type II 5-alpha-reductace is needed. This enzyme is stored inside of hair follicle’s oil glands.
Hair growth and loss are affected by DHT because this hormone causes follicles to miniaturize and shortens their life spans, eventually causing them to stop producing hair altogether. When DHT is suppressed, such as due to medications/interventions aimed at stopping hair loss, hair follicles continue to thrive and grow new hair, working as a natural treatment for thinning hair.
It’s estimated that about two-thirds of American men will experience some degree of appreciable hair loss by their mid-30s, and this number rises to to about 85 percent by the time a man reaches his 50s.
Here is how androgenic alopecia contributes to hair loss:
Women normally have much lower levels of both testosterone and DHT in their bodies compared to men, but when levels rise, they can suffer from DHT-triggered hair loss just like men. Even if a blood test shows that DHT levels are within the “normal” range for a woman, a slightly higher-than-normal level may still contribute to hair loss among some women who are sensitive to the effects of androgens.
This sometimes occurs if a woman’s “female hormone” levels (such as estrogen) decrease, which means that the effects of androgen hormones are not as balanced.
What causes androgenic alopecia to develop in women? Some hair loss causes tied to high androgen levels include:
It’s possible to produce either too much or too little DHT. Men are more likely to experience symptoms if they make too little DHT, while women are more likely to experience symptoms if they make too much.
On the other hand, in men, high levels cause few identifiable changes, while low levels in women have the same result.
High levels of DHT are usually a result of excess testosterone production. This can happen in both women and men.
It’s usually more obvious if a woman has high DHT because it causes physical changes that are considered masculine. For example, among women, high DHT symptoms may include:
Men who produce too little DHT may experience some of these symptoms:
In the past, high DHT levels in men were thought to pose certain health risks, but this may not actually be the case, according to recent research studies.
Links have been made between high DHT and enlarged prostate, higher risk for development of prostate cancer, and higher risk for coronary heart disease. However, a number of long-term studies have failed to show that elevated DHT has these negative effects.
The role of DHT in these conditions remains controversial, and ongoing research is being done to figure out if DHT blockers and inhibitors may work as therapy options. What does seem clear is that DHT stimulates the growth of prostate cells, which is normal during puberty but can become problematic in older men.
Interventions aimed at reducing hair loss target both DHT production and DHT receptor binding within hair follicles.
Will reducing DHT really regrow hair, according to studies? One study found that the majority of men taking finasteride experienced improvements in hair loss.
The study also points out: “Currently, minoxidil and finasteride which are Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved, and HairMax LaserComb, which is FDA-cleared, are the only treatments recognized by the FDA as treatments of androgenetic alopecia.”
Another study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that more than 80 percent of men taking finasteride preserved their original hair follicle counts, and more than 65 percent experienced hair regrowth. Finasteride is typically taken in doses of one milligram daily.
Another treatment option is a DHT inhibitor, which decreases the amount of DHT you produce, helping less reach the scalp while also reducing DHT’s effects elsewhere. Medications that improve blood flow to the scalp may also be used in conjunction with blockers and inhibitors to promote hair growth.
5alpha-reductase inhibitors are also used as treatments for benign prostatic hyperplasia (or BHP, characterized by growth of the gland with aging ). In doses of about five milligrams, the drug Proscar helps some men with BPH.
This type of drug seems to reduce prostate volume, improve symptoms, and reduce the risk of acute urinary retention and need for BPH-related surgery. Emerging studies show that DHT blockers can play a role in prostate cancer treatment too.
While less research has focused on this topic, there are ome “natural DHT blockers” that some people find helpful. Natural remedies for hair loss include special shampoos and creams, green tea, pumpkin seed oil, biotin supplements, omega-3s, zinc, adaptogen herbs, and herbal supplements like saw palmetto.
These can help to some extent but usually not as much as prescriptions like finasteride.
Low level laser therapy is another treatment option, which some people may feel more comfortable with, that shows promise for kickstarting hair growth. It works by increasing blood flow in the scalp and stimulating metabolism in catagen or telogen follicles.
Finally, consider trying rosemary essential oil and cedarwood essential oil (such as in this Rosemary, Cedarwood & Sage Hair Thickener recipe), which some people find helps stimulate hair growth, slows graying and treats conditions affecting the scalp, such as dandruff.
According to some experts, your workout routine may have an effect on whether you experience symptoms tied to irregular DHT levels, including hair loss or hair growth.
Exercise can be both a natural DHT blocker and potentially a means of increasing DHT/testosterone levels (and therefore hair loss), depending on the type and frequency.
Doing lots of aerobic/cardio exercise — such as endurance exercise like cycling or running for hours — may reduce levels in the bloodstream, while lots of weightlifting can increase testosterone levels and therefore DHT levels. Muscle building tends to lead to higher testosterone levels.
Lots of cardio, however, has been shown to decrease testosterone because it increases secretion of cortisol.
The best way to avoid having exercise lead to hormonal imbalances is to:
There’s some evidence that if you include “DHT blocker foods” in your diet you may experience a bit less hair loss, although more research is needed to confirm how well this works.
Foods that can potentially block the effects of high DHT include:
A diet high in processed foods, added sugar and trans fats may also contribute to metabolic problems, inflammation and hormonal imbalances that may worsen DHT-induced health problems. Consuming supplements/protein powders that contain growth hormones can do the same by increasing testosterone production.
Because DHT is a hormone that has a number of roles in the body, blocking its effects can cause various reactions. Possible DHT blocker side effects include:
As mentioned above, women and children should never take DHT blocker medications.
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