Nutrition and Hair Care: You Are What You Eat
Healthy looking hair, defined as thick, shiny, smooth, and long, is something that everyone desires as it signifies beauty and youth in our society. But did you know that healthy hair is also a sign of good overall health?
Healthy individuals typically eat a balanced diet, which correlates to the healthy appearance of the hair. Studies have confirmed that proper nutrition is conducive to hair that grows in full and strong. Conversely, deficiencies in certain vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and other essential nutrients correspond with thinning, weakened hair or even hair loss.
Drug store shelves seem to be flooded with supplements that advertise to consumers how the product can help them achieve healthy hair. Many people choose to take these supplements in the effort to fix their hair issues as it is easier than making the necessary changes to their diet. However, research suggests that excessive intakes of nutritional supplements may actually cause hair loss, thus these are not recommended in the absence of a proven deficiency. (Clin Exp Dermatol., 2002)
Continue reading to learn how nutrition plays a role in hair care and what you can do to maintain thick, healthy, beautiful hair without having to take additional nutritional supplements.
Why hair needs nutrients
The visible hair that grows from our scalp is called the hair shaft, which exhibits no biochemical activity and is considered “dead”. (Wikipedia) However, there is a part of the hair that is living, which is under the scalp skin inside of the hair follicle. To maintain life, arteries supply the entire follicle and root of the hair with a blood supply rich in oxygen and nutrients.
While the average amount of hair growth is about one-half inch per month, the rate of hair growth depends on many factors such as genetics, gender, age, and hormones. Hair growth rate may also be diminished by a deficit in certain nutrients. A vitamin or nutrient deficiency will typically first become apparent in the hair, which will look dry, dull, stringy, and thin. The most important nutrients for maintaining thick, healthy hair are the B group vitamins, iron, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Deficiencies that cause thinning hair
According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. Every cell in the human body contains iron and it is vital for many functions, including transporting the oxygen from our lungs via red blood cells to all tissues of the body. Iron deficiencies can result in anemias, which if left untreated can lead to morbidity and death.
When discussing nutrition and hair care, studies have confirmed the relationship between iron deficiency and thinning or loss of hair. One study examined 200 women who presented with unexplained persistent hair shedding, but had normal scalp hair density. Blood levels for hemoglobin, serum ferritin, vitamin B12, serum folate, and serum zinc were drawn. The most frequent abnormal nutrient was a low serum ferritin (an intracellular protein that stores iron). (Clin Exp Dermatol., 2002)
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, inadequate protein in the diet can be a cause of hair loss. Research has identified the essential amino acid L-lysine, which is important in the formation of proteins, to be most relevant when discussing hair loss. Because hair is made out of the protein keratin, healthy hair needs a good balance of protein intake. This is actually the most important hair “nutrient”.
L-lysine is found primarily in meat, fish, and eggs. Vegetarian sources are soy, nuts, beans and seeds. Reducing the consumption of these foods in the diet results in a deficit of this important protein building block. Deficits of L-lysine then cause the body to prioritize its distribution to more vital organs, thus leaving nonessential tissues, such as scalp hair, compromised. Ultimately, this can lead to thinning hair and reduced hair growth. (Clin Exp Dermatol., 2002)
Diets that lack the appropriate amount of protein can also result in the loss of hair color. This is due to the process in which melanin is produced. Melanin is the pigment that gives hair its color. It comes from cells called melanocytes that reside in the skin surrounding each hair follicle. When a hair strand is being formed, the melanocytes inject pigment (melanin) into cells containing keratin, the fibrous structural protein that makes up each strand of hair. (Source)
The body produces melanin through the oxidation of the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine, 4-hydroxyphenylalanine, is one of the 20 standard amino acids that are used by cells to synthesize proteins. It can be found in foods such as chicken, turkey, fish, peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, soy products, lima beans, avocadoes, and many more. (Wikipedia)
The B vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins that are important for many metabolic processes in the body. This group includes:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- Vitamin B7 (biotin)
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid)
- Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)
In regards to nutrition and hair care, vitamin B5 has a role in supporting the adrenal glands, which subsequently stimulates hair growth. (Dr. Axe) Vitamin B7, biotin, is required for several enzymatic reactions within the body and is also necessary for the proper metabolism of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Any diet that lacks an appropriate amount of biotin, can lead to poor metabolism of nutrients and contribute to undernourished hair follicle cells. (The Trichological Society)
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that provide the hair with nourishment and support hair thickening. These fatty acids are found in foods like salmon, walnuts, hemp seeds, and eggs.
In 2015, the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology published a study that investigated 120 healthy females with female pattern hair loss and the effects of a 6 months supplementation with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids as well as antioxidants. During evaluation, 89.9% of females the treatment group reported a reduction in hair loss and 87% reported an improved hair density. (Dr. Axe)
Deficiencies of protein, iron, certain B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids can manifest as thinning or loss of hair. Speaking to a physician about nutrition and hair care is important because excessive intake of nutritional supplements can actually cause further hair loss, especially when a deficiency is not present to begin with. Generally, a balanced diet of protein, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and grains is important for healthy hair growth. After all, you are what you eat!
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