To survive, the human body naturally assigns a pecking order to how nutrients are used, says Alan Christianson, NMD, medical director of Integrative Health Care in Scottsdale, Ariz. and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Thyroid Disease. Essential internal organs such as the heart and brain get first priority, followed by muscles, bones, and connective tissue, and then skin and nails. "Hair is at the very bottom," says Christianson.
Those priorities make good survival sense. Hair loss isn't deadly or debilitating, but it isn't usually desirable, either. To get a handle on what you can do to keep a healthy head of hair, it helps to understand what influences its growth.
Meet the Hair Follicle
The word follicle comes from "follis," the Latin word for "bag." In this case, the bag holds the root of the hair and determines how well that hair will keep growing. "We're very dynamic," says Christianson, meaning that cells in our bodies are continually turning over, dying off, and being replaced. Consequently, he says, "We have an amazing ability to heal ourselves." The turnover occurs at different rates in different areas. For example, cells in the lining of the small intestine turn over in about 20 minutes, and skin cells turn over in a few days.
Hair follicles regenerate much more slowly; it takes three months for their cells to be replaced by new ones. Because of this time lag, the state of the follicle is a historical picture of your body's nutritional condition. However, because the follicle is hidden under the skin, the hair that grows out of it is the only visible sign, and it has an even longer time lag.
Hair grows at an average of one-half inch per month. Combine that with the three-month turnover of follicle cells, and the first half-inch of your current hair growth reflects your body's chemistry four months ago. A strand of hair that is four inches long would be a snapshot from eleven months ago.
As we age, turnover of cells throughout the body becomes less efficient, and at some point, hair follicles may cease to support hair growth. Genes certainly play a role, but the right nutrition helps us make the most of our natural endowment.
Essential Hair Food
For healthy hair, Christianson ranks protein as the most important nutrient-not as a total amount per day, but as a percentage of total daily calories, with 20-30 percent protein being optimal. "Protein is used to process, or break down all the food you eat," he says, in addition to repairing and rebuilding tissue.
More specifically, for every 100 calories you eat, 10 calories of protein will be used to break down that food. Any remaining protein will be used to repair and rebuild tissues. If there isn't enough to go around, hair follicles will be the first to suffer (see "Eat Enough Protein," at right).
Christianson also recommends taking supplements of key minerals, healthy fats, a purified form of silica such as BioSil, and MSM for sulfur. These all support healthy follicles and hair growth.
Hormones and Hair
Two types of hormones-testosterone and thyroid-most commonly affect hair.
Testosterone and DHT: In women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), too much testosterone can cause hair thinning. In men, and sometimes in women without PCOS, testosterone can cause hair loss in two ways: by elevated levels of the hormone or by conversion to DHT (dihydrotestosterone), another hormone the body makes from testosterone. Blocking or reducing conversion to DHT helps preserve hair in men and in some women, and is the target of pharmaceutical hair-loss treatments.
Thyroid: Hair loss or thinning can be a sign of low thyroid hormones, most often among women. Toxins are a trigger because the thyroid gland accumulates more toxins than any other organ. To avoid toxins, eat organic foods and use non-toxic hair and skin care products.
Too little or too much iodine can also trigger thyroid malfunction. About 300 mcg daily of iodine from all sources is optimal, says Christianson. To see if your thyroid could be underperforming, take the test at thethyroidquiz.com.
Helpful Hair Supplements
Use supplements on a daily basis and allow time for their effects to become visible. Because follicle cells take three months to regenerate and hair grows one-half inch per month, it takes about four months to start seeing results.
Keratin promotes healthy hair. Our bodies make it from the amino acids in the protein we eat. These nutrients improve our ability to produce keratin:
Multivitamin and Minerals: Zinc, copper, selenium, chromium, and manganese, best taken in a multivitamin and mineral formula. Aim for 10-15 mg daily of zinc, which also helps block DHT.
MSM:Dietary sulfur is a key ingredient in keratin production. Cruciferous veggies, such as cauliflower, are good sources. MSM in supplements is also a rich source. Take 1,000 mg of MSM, twice daily.
Omega-3 fats: Fish oil is the most common source. Take 1,000-3,000 mg daily. Flax seed oil is the richest source of plant-based omega-3s. Take 2,000-3,000 mg in capsules or 1-2 Tbs. of flax seed oil daily.
Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA): A healthy form of omega-6 fats, GLA in supplements usually comes from borage, evening primrose, or black currant oil.
Silica: Look for a purified form, such as BioSil (choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid, or ch-OSA). Take 5 mg, once or twice daily. Silica is also present in horsetail, an herb found in some natural formulas for healthy hair.
Supplement formulas that block DHT contain nutrients and herbs, such as Ho Shou Wu, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to restore healthy hair; and saw palmetto and phytosterols, which help to balance hormone production and reduce levels of DHT.
Number of hairs on a human head 100,000
To see if you're eating enough protein, use a free online diary or smartphone app at tracker.dailyburn.com.
If the amount of hair in your shower drain or brush is increasing, it could mean your hair is becoming more brittle and fragile from being mistreated. Or, the follicles could be deteriorating and producing hair that breaks easily or falls out. A thinner ponytail is another sign of trouble (but putting hair into a ponytail doesn't cause hair loss or thinning). Heat, chemicals, and rough handling, such as teasing, can contribute to poor hair quality and breakage, making your hair appear thinner.
Eat Enough Protein
Hair Loss Survival Kit
Each of the products below contain either one or a combination of the nutrients covered in the article.
This proprietary formula has 78 ionic minerals (important for healthy hair), 34 enzymes, and 17 amino acids that deliver oxygen and nutrients to cells. Add to water or juice.
These capsules feature an extract of Spring Horsetail, which is rich in silica. A unique aqueous extraction method is used to ensure high bioavailability of the nutrient.
Bao Shi Advanced Men's Restorative Hair Nutrients
This formula combines herbs (including Ho Shou Wu), vitamins and minerals, and saw palmetto. Ideal for thinning or graying hair.
This product uses a patented process that enables the keratin molecule to be absorbed in the body, making it both bioactive and bioavailable.
Skin, Nails & Hair Advanced MSM Formula
These vegetarian tablets deliver MSM to help boost collagen and keratin, major building blocks of hair. Also added: silicon, zinc, and copper.