Congresswoman Bravely Shares That She Is Living With Alopecia. Let’s Discuss This Autoimmune Condition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
Despite ugly comments made by some on social media calling Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who is bald, “Mr. Clean,” Pressley is staying strong and looks beautiful doing it.
Pressley, Massachusette’s first black congresswoman, revealed last month that she has alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. You can watch the video here, where she shares her condition and proudly shows her bald head.
Before this, the congresswoman usually wore her hair in Senegalese twists, much to the admiration of young African-American girls living in a society where black hair may sometimes not be celebrated, especially when it comes to women in positions of power.
Pressley said her hair loss got so bad that there were “sink-fulls of hair.”
"My twists have become such a synonymous and conflated part of not only my personal identity and how I show up in the world, but my political brand," Pressley said. "That's why I think it's important that I'm transparent about this new normal and living with alopecia."
And to all the haters calling her “Mr. Clean,” she tweeted: "You really think I look like "Mr. Clean" ? Please. He never looked THIS clean. Sorry not sorry my unapologetically rockin' my crown triggers you. Proud #alopecian."
Good for her! It’s absolutely absurd that people would tease and bully her for her appearance, especially when she has a disease that she does not have any control over having.
Let’s go into further detail on what exactly alopecia is.
As mentioned, alopecia is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune conditions occur when your body attacks healthy cells. This means your immune system can’t tell the difference between your body’s healthy tissues and harmful foreign invaders like viruses, bacteria and germs.
Fortunately, this condition is not life-threatening or painful. It often occurs in otherwise healthy people. It is important to acknowledge, however, that hair loss may lead to distress that may increase the risk of developing depression and other mental health issues.
Back in 2014, actress Jackie Nguyen discussed her fight with alopecia and depression. She suffered from depression before being diagnosed with alopecia, however, having the condition definitely made it more difficult for her to cope with her depression at times, especially as someone who is constantly in the public eye.
The full name for this condition is alopecia areata. Basically, alopecia is the medical term for “bald” and areata means “patchy.”
There are actually three main types of alopecia, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
- Alopecia areata: This is the kind that is patchy and can occur anywhere on the body, including the scalp, beard area, eyebrows, eyelashes, armpits and inside the nose or ears.
- Alopecia totalis: The scalp goes completely bald. (I believe this is the kind congresswoman Pressley has).
- Alopecia universalis: The person loses all hair, leaving the entire body hairless. This is rare.
With alopecia, the body attacks its own hair follicles (where our hair grows from). So any hair loss on any part of the body may occur.
Alopecia is unpredictable.
“Hair may regrow without treatment. This happens more often when someone has a few bald patches. When the hair regrows, it may fall out again—or it may not,” reports the American Academy of Dermatology.
What causes alopecia?
Like with most autoimmune conditions, the exact cause of alopecia is unknown.
According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, “Alopecia areata is known as a ‘polygenic disease.’ This means that, unlike a single-gene disease, both parents must contribute a number of specific genes in order for a child to develop it. Because of this, most parents will not pass alopecia areata along to their children. With identical twins — who share all of the same genes — there’s only a 55% chance that if one has alopecia areata, the other will, too. This is why scientists believe that it takes more than just genetics to cause the disease and that other environmental factors also contribute to people developing alopecia areata.”
Most people develop alopecia during childhood or during their teenage years (it is said to affect both women and men equally).
How common is alopecia?
Reportedly, around 6.8 million people in the United States are affected by alopecia.
Actress Viola Davis said that she lost most of her hair when she was just 28-years-old due to alopecia.
How can we be proactive about alopecia?
There is no known cure for alopecia, but “[t]he main goals of treatment are to block the immune system attack and/or stimulate the regrowth of hair,” according to one source.
“For limited areas of alopecia, the most effective initial therapy is a series of corticosteroid injections into the bald patches to suppress the immune reaction,” reports Harvard Health.
“Some people with the condition will respond to high dose topical preparations applied to the affected areas.”
Another treatment option is immunotherapy, which basically works by applying a chemical to the skin to irritate it (cause an allergic reaction) so that the immune system is stimulated and triggers hair growth.
“Your treatment depends on several factors, including your age (some treatments are only for adults), the amount of your hair loss, and your willingness to deal with any treatment-related discomfort or side effects,” reports Harvard.
Of course, if you have alopecia and hair loss, you can choose to embrace being bald or wear wigs. If you were diagnosed with alopecia and are struggling mentally, consider joining a therapy group. (You can learn more about support groups here).
I think a big takeaway from all of this is that alopecia is clearly associated with how well the immune system works. So it is important to take care of your immunity by consistently following a nutrient-rich diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
“Deficiency of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals may represent a modifiable risk factor associated with development of AA [alopecia areata ]. Given their role in normal hair follicle development and in immune cell function, a growing number of investigations have sought to determine whether serum levels of these nutrients might differ in AA patients, and whether supplementation of these nutrients might represent a therapeutic option for AA,” reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron and vitamins C and D are important for hair growth and health. Read here to learn about nutrients that may help keep your immune system in top shape.
It is also important to take routine nutrient tests in order to identify any nutrient imbalances or deficiencies you may have. If the test reveals you have too much or too little of a certain nutrient, a competent healthcare professional can work with you on making the necessary dietary changes and recommend quality supplements if necessary.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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