There are no doubts that, despite being an almost exclusively physically painless process, hair loss
can be extremely distressing. For British title-holding gymnast Natasha Coates, however, it is far more serious.
As she explains to The Guardian, a rare disorder which causes her body to reject her hair follicles, has potentially life-threatening consequences.
Mast cell activation syndrome
After first developing signs when she was 18 - an anaphylactic reaction involving numbness, tongue swelling and a burning sensation - Coates started actually losing her hair at 20 years old. Over a five day period, her long hair, eyebrows and eyelashes fell out. When patches of hair did begin to grow back, her skin would start to blister so - to avoid the possibility of anaphylactic shock - she would have to shave her hair off again, each time.
Coates was finally diagnosed as having mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS). Little is known about the immunological condition which was only officially recognised in 2007, and which she uses an EpiPen to treat when milder attacks occur.
Mast cells are blood cells involved in the functioning of the immune system. According to the charity Mast Cell Action, these 'react to foreign bodies and injury by releasing a variety of potent chemical mediators, such as histamine, when activated. In a healthy person these chemicals will act beneficially to protect and heal the body, but in a person with MCAS these same chemicals are inappropriately triggered and released and have a negative effect on the body'.
journalist Sophie Haydock, the elite disability gymnast, explained: "It took more than two years to get diagnosed. I’ve probably had around at least 500 life-threatening allergic reactions since then... It means that white blood cells in my body are faulty. The allergic reactions happen spontaneously, at least once a day. I might be watching TV or even be asleep.
I’m potentially allergic to everything: alcohol, crying, or changes in the weather. With my hair, my cells were fighting the follicles, which made it fall out.... Some days I’m more sensitive than others. I could eat something today that won’t provoke a reaction and eat the same thing tomorrow and nearly die. It all depends on the cells. They are like moody teenagers... It’s difficult, because you never know when it’s going to happen
Although Natasha Coates' hair seems to now be regrowing without issue and she believes the problematic cells may have 'died off', she says there are 'no predictions' for her future.
Links to alopecia areata
The hair fall which presented in Coates' case is reminiscent of that which occurs in Alopecia Universalis
- the most severe form of autoimmune alopecia. These are conditions which cause sudden hairloss to varying degrees in hair-bearing areas, from the scalp (Alopecia Areata
) to the head only (Alopecia Totalis
) to total baldness from head to toe (Alopecia Universalis).
As with MCAS, other than a range of established trigger factors, there is still much left to discover about precisely how and why alopecia areata transpires. It is an enigmatic disease which currently only has treatment options
available for the scalp-only form.
Interestingly, medical research at Michigan State University in the US has previously linked
mast cell activation to alopecia areata via stress
- a known provocateur of both this and MCAS.