THEY work hard and play hard, but a growing number of young women are paying an embarrassing price for their 21st-century lifestyles.
Doctors and charities say there has been a significant increase in the number of women suffering serious hair loss and even baldness.
The problem is being blamed on women’s increasingly stressful lifestyles and poor diets - both of which can damage the body’s immune system and lead to the condition alopecia areata.
According to charity Hairline International, which provides information to people with alopecia, there has been a big increase in the number of sufferers on its books.
In June 2001, the charity had 2,000 women listed with the condition. The number now stands at 3,200, just under half of them Scots aged 21 to 35.
The condition occurs when a ‘trigger’ sends signals to the body to start attacking itself. In the case of alopecia areata, it is the hair that is the target.
Elizabeth Steel, director of Hairline International, said hectic lifestyles and crash dieting were among the likely causes. She said: "There is no single cause, but one of the reasons why some women develop the condition is through an iron deficiency.
"This can be caused by crash or yo-yo dieting, and a lifestyle that is becoming common in 30-something women: working long hours, not eating properly and leading stressful lives, which runs the body down."
Steel said alopecia often started as a small round bald patch and in some cases spread. "Alopecia totalis is the loss of 100% of scalp hair, while alopecia universalis is the loss of 100% of body hair," she said.
"However, these last two conditions are rare, and in the majority of patients the hair will re-grow completely within one year without any treatment."
Steel also said she was unsure why so many women in Scotland had started suffering from the condition.
"I’m not sure if life in Scotland is more stressful than anywhere else in the country, but there has been a significant increase in the number of Scots women contacting us for help."
Rosemary Girty, who set up the Alopecia Help and Advice Scotland charity five years ago to give support and advice to sufferers, said hair loss was a very sensitive area, particularly for women.
"It is a really difficult subject for many sufferers to talk about, because for women losing their hair is devastating.
"We have people in the group who have never told anyone they have the condition because they are too embarrassed."
She said quarterly meetings were held with invited speakers, including acupuncturists, reflexologists and wig-makers. "We are not saying we advocate one type of treatment, because ultimately there is no cure. But some people find alternative therapy such as acupuncture helps," Girty said.
She added: "We now have a database of about 350 people, but there is no way of truly knowing how many people have the condition because there are just so many women and men out there who will never admit to it."
Dr Andrew Messenger, who has spent 20 years researching alopecia at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital,
said: "Some people will report that their hair started falling out when they began coming under a lot of pressure at work.
"Ironically it is then the stress of losing their hair that can make the situation worse."
Dr Olivia Schofield, who works in the dermatology department of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, said alopecia was an auto-immune condition, which meant the body started attacking itself.
"In the case of alopecia areata, the body’s immune system acts as if the hair follicles are foreign tissue and must, therefore, be eliminated," Scholfield said.
"To achieve the elimination, white blood cells attack certain or all hair follicles and cause hair growth to stop, resulting in partial or complete hair loss.
"There are many theories as to why people develop this condition: stress, diet and even hormonal.
But the bottom line is that it is poorly understood."
Ric Chamberlain, a member of the British Acupuncture Council, said the condition was a "modern lifestyle" problem.
"Certainly it’s now quite common for people to come for treatment. Generally it’s caused by a nutrient deficiency, which can be caused by a bad diet.
"Stress can be a factor because it can stop vital nutrients being absorbed into the blood." He said the condition could be cured by using needles. "Acupuncture taps into energy channels that can strengthen the blood and body."
Pam Thomson, owner of Edinburgh-based hair consultants Turvey and Co, which also provides wigs for alopecia sufferers, said there had been a marked increase in pleas for help. She has about 500 female clients with alopecia. "It’s a hidden illness. People don’t want to talk about it," she said.
"Unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t know how it affects your self-confidence. You feel less of a woman and you want to hide, but there are options for people out there and some amazingly realistic wigs."
'People thought that I was making a fashion statement'
FOR Amber Lennie, 29, losing her hair was ironic: she works as a hairdresser for Charlie Miller’s Stafford Street salon in Edinburgh.
"I found a large bald spot at the base of the skull and then it just began to fall out," she said.
"Every morning it would be all over the pillow. I went to the doctor and was told it was alopecia, but he said there wasn’t anything he could do."
Lennie tried to disguise the problem, tying her hair back, putting in extensions and then her boss bought her some wigs.
Eventually she shaved off the rest of her hair. "People thought that I was making a fashion statement," she said. "But I put on a brave face and continued to go out clubbing."
A homeopath prescribed herbal remedies and multi-vitamins and Lennie’s hair started to grow again.
"No one knows why this happened to me. I have been very lucky because it’s grown back."
She added: "Now some of my clients have this problem and I can understand how they feel."
Lennie sometimes wonders if her condition could be attributed to the way she lives.
"I suppose my lifestyle is quite stressful but I hadn’t really thought about it as being that. But then again if you’re naturally a busy person you just get on with it."