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Nutrition and Your Hair

Whoever coined the phrase “you are what you eat” was probably thinking about the health of their hair when they said it! In truth this cliché’ should read: “You are what you eat and what your body can absorb and utilise….”

With the exception of our bone marrow and the cells that form the lining of our stomach, the cells of the hair bulb reproduce at a greater rate than any other body cells. Because of its rapid growth, hair is very sensitive to internal or external changes that may affect our body.

Hair loss or dull, dry hair is often the first indicator to a developing internal disturbance. It’s little wonder then that the condition of our hair is directly affected by the foods we eat or don’t eat.

The “tea and toast” routine of some elderly folk is well documented; they and those with disabilities sometimes lack the physical capacity or even the motivation to prepare and cook a meal.

Young children will often have only two or three types of food that they’ll readily eat, potentially leaving them vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies in other areas.

A gradual ‘all over’ thinning of the hair in may reflect low iron, zinc, or other deficiency. It could also herald the onset of a physical disorder such as diabetes or problems of the thyroid gland.

With low iron, zinc, vitamin C deficiency, or a thyroid disturbance, the hair is very often dry, brittle and lustreless. Hair texture and colour may also be altered with some deficiencies.

The majority of pre-menopausal* women who present with thinning scalp hair density concerns; a low iron level is either the primary or most frequently underlying additional cause of the condition. If a woman is vegetarian, or consumes little iron-rich foods and has a history of heavy periods, she should:

  • Have your Doctor check your iron levels at least every 6-12 months (please refer to the article ‘Iron deficiency & hair loss – an interpretation’).
  • Investigate the reason/s for heavy periods (termed menorrhagia)
  • Supplement with an organic iron/vitamin C formula as appropriate.

The hair structure comprises 98% protein – however the body regards hair as a non-essential tissue – and not a priority for regeneration & repair over muscle and skin tissue. Therefore an adequate daily protein intake from various sources is crucial to support optimal hair growth.

Where protein intake is inadequate – or the protein is not being utilised** – the hair shaft becomes finer and thinner, with hair breakage, split ends and/or hair loss the inevitably result. Research studies have shown that if we go more than four hours without eating, the energy levels to our hair follicles is decreased, and the formation of hair protein cells is affected.

Our metabolism functions more efficiently when we consume a diet higher in protein & fibre, with less carbohydrate load. This is particularly important for women of menopausal age, as a high protein, hi-fibre & grain diet will lift metabolic activity, aid in decreasing excess oestrogen & raise 2-OH Estrone – the ‘good’ oestrogen that doesn’t stimulate carcinogenic cell growth.

A daily serve of cruciferous (brassica) vegetables (broccoli, bok-choi, brussels sprouts, cabbage & cauliflower) assists hormonal health as these vegetables contain a substance termed Indole 3 carbinol (I3C). I3C facilitates the metabolising & detoxification of oestrogen. Decreasing red meat (or changing to organic meats) & dairy products will also help decrease excessive oestrogen levels in women & men.

The mineral zinc is an essential element required for many biochemical processes in the body including hormone production and immune system function. A zinc deficiency may be caused by poor diet, absorption problems, endocrine gland dysfunction, or the excessive use of alcohol or diuretics.

Low zinc levels are commonly found in people who work in the automotive repair industry, welders, the construction (from cement dust) or paper/pulp industries. This is because these workers are often exposed to increased levels of lead, cadmium or mercury, all of which antagonise the absorption and utilisation of zinc.

Low zinc will result in dry, brittle hair and hair loss. It’s believed there is little natural zinc or selenium present in the Australian soil.

Copper – the principal zinc antagonist – is also an essential mineral for healthy body functioning. Copper is a component of essential cell enzymes, & a deficiency or excess may disorder their production and function.

Copper deficiency interferes with iron utilisation by red blood cells, causing the iron to be stored (& unavailable) within the organs of the body. This stored iron can’t be utilised, & despite an actual body iron sufficiency – anaemia-like symptoms may result.

Chromium is an essential trace element required for the maintenance of normal blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Diffuse hair loss, diabetes-like symptoms, and fatigue may indicate a lack of chromium.

People whose dietary intake is high in processed foods will commonly be deficient in chromium. Other problems that can affect chromium status are a low vitamin B6, or iron overload. Yeast is a good source of chromium, but if you have problems with thrush or yeast allergy, a non-yeast chromium supplement should be taken.

Scaling, flaking or itching scalps may be the result of a diet too high in sugars or poor quality fats. These scalp issues may also aggravated by stress, smoking or excessive alcohol use.

The positive side in all this is that simply by consuming particular foods – consumed at the right time of day – can dramatically improve the condition, density and strength of our hair. Scalp and skin scalp will also reap the rewards of an improved diet & good hydration with water and non-commercial vegetable/fruit juices.

Vegetables, salads and fruits should account for about one-third of our total dietary intake for at least five days per week. Different vegetables and fruits do not all have the same nutritional value, so it is important to include a wide variety of each in the daily diet. Rule of thumb: the more ‘colourful’ the vegetable or fruit – the higher its anti-oxidant content. Dark green leafy vegetables are believed to have some carcinogen-prevention value – particularly in the bowel. They also potentiate the absorption of iron and other nutrients.

Here is one daily dietary example to help maintain optimum hair health:

  • Breakfast: The most crucial meal of the day for our hair as follicle energy levels is at their lowest point. Some form of “complete” protein (complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids) is essential at breakfast. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk all provide complete protein in varying quantities. Frittata, or poached/scrambled eggs on high-fibre toasted bread, juice, or a high-fibre cereal in skim milk/soy is an ideal start.
  • Morning Tea: A piece of fresh fruit, juice or water to hydrate the hair and skin. Most of us love our “morning cuppa” of coffee or tea, but consume them in moderation. Coffee, tea and alcohol are diuretics and dehydrate our body cells. Additionally, excessive coffee consumption may lead to a lowering of oestrogen levels in women, whilst the tannin contained in tea is known to decrease nutritional iron status.
  • Lunch: Lunch is the next most important meal of the day but the easiest to overlook. A protein (seafood/chicken/meat) and vegetable pasta or risotto, or turkey and salad sandwich on wholemeal will fuel our body for the afternoon. If you enjoy salmon as a filling or with a salad, crush and consume the bones as they are an excellent source of calcium.
  • Afternoon Tea: Sliced raw vegetables preferably, or fruit. Avoid eating bananas or nuts at this time because their digestion time is too long to assist hair follicle function.
  • Dinner: This is the least important meal for hair follicle energy levels. Consume a light meal of some form of complete protein with steamed vegetables or salad. Fruit salad or a low fat yogurt if you enjoy a dessert.
  • Supper: Warm skim dairy or soy milk with a piece of wholemeal toasted bread. This combination will usually help to give a restful night’s sleep, prevent the “midnight munchies”, and sustain protein levels for our body to utilise.

*Yet to transition through menopause
**In pancreatic exocrine deficiency, gut dysbiosis or other metabolic disturbance
Disclaimer: this article is NOT intended as medical dietary advice & readers should be guided by their own needs, cultural requirements and Doctor’s advice.