Having healthy-looking hair means a lot to most people. Hair that splits at the ends, hair loss, and other hair problems may be caused by stress, hormone changes, and numerous other factors. In this article, we will take a closer look at the diet and its impact on hair health, and we will look at available studies of protein, iron, zinc, selenium, silica, B vitamins, vitamin D and vitamin A. The fact is, we need plenty of these nutrients in a form that the body can absorb and utilize. On the other hand, getting too much can do more harm than good, according to an article in Dermatology Practical & Conceptual, in which the author has analyzed the available research.
Our hair is produced by hair follicles in our skin. Having healthy skin is therefore determining for the health of your hair. Hair consists of a special type of protein called keratin, and each strand of hair grows for a period that can last anywhere from months to several years. A human has approximately 100,000 strands of hair on the head. Every day, we lose about 100 hair strands, and that is perfectly normal. There may be periods in our lives where we lose more. Actual hair loss is when we replace fewer hairs than we lose.
Hair follicles belong to the group of body tissues with the highest metabolic activity. The health of our hair depends on our intake of calories and specific nutrients that are involved in various enzyme processes with relevance for the growth and structure of hair.
We will address the underlying causes of hair loss and thinning of hair, which are mainly a result of:
Hereditary hair loss
The most common cause of hair loss and thinning of hair. Hair loss, which is predominantly a male problem, is down to hereditary factors combined with an increased production of male testosterone. Women can also experience hair loss after menopause, if their testosterone levels go up. There is currently no effective treatment for hair loss, but it is possible that stress and lack of specific nutrients may expedite the process.
Other types of hair loss – telogen effluvium
This term covers any type of hair loss that is not hereditary but rather caused by dietary or environmental factors. Examples include lack of nutrients, stress, chronic illnesses, pregnancy, breastfeeding, birth control pills, chemotherapy, and various types of medicine. The earlier the treatment is started, the better the chances of saving the hair.
It is important to treat the underlying causes
If the hair loss is caused by serious ailments such as Hashimoto’s disease that slows down the metabolism, the doctor should be consulted. If the patient lacks essential nutrients, this problem should naturally be addressed, as such deficiencies can set the stage for disease.
Lack of nutrients may affect the growth and structure of hair. Hair loss is very common, and the risk increases with age. There is a variety of products that contain different nutrients that support healthy hair. One should always make sure that the nutrients are in a form that the body can absorb, and also make sure to avoid overconsuming the different nutrients. Many people are in the habit of taking several nutritional supplements, so make sure to calculate the total intake for the sake of optimizing the effect without getting too much.
Get enough protein and essential amino acids
Both skin and hair need protein in the making. Therefore, an unhealthy diet with too little protein or intense dieting may affect your hair. Protein is made of amino acids. One particular amino acid called lysine - we get it from meat, fish, and eggs - is very important for hair and for being able to utilize iron. However, do not exaggerate your protein intake. Some women with chronic hair loss, who have tried iron supplements without any luck, may benefit from a combination of L-lysine and iron, as it increases their serum levels of ferritin.
Protein from meat, fish, beans, eggs, and dairy products also provides sulfur, which is important for skin and hair.
Iron deficiencies are common – especially among women
Iron is one of the most important trace elements and is essential for the red blood cells and the energy turnover. Iron is also believed to be important for gene regulation and cell division in the hair follicles
Iron deficiencies are quite common and a frequent cause of hair loss. Women of child-bearing age are particularly likely to lack iron because of the blood loss they suffer during their menstrual periods. However, athletes, vegetarians, and many others may also become deficient.
Lack of vitamin C, too little gastric juice, the use of antacids, too much tea and coffee, and too much calcium from dairy products and supplements may also block the body’s iron uptake. A study has shown a link between iron deficiency and chronic hair loss in menopausal and post-menopausal women. Have your doctor check your iron status, if you suspect an iron deficiency, and only take an iron supplement if your physician recommends it.
|Good iron sources are liver, meat, fish, pumpkin seeds and other seeds, beans, stinging nettle, spinach, broccoli, apricot, whole-grain, and red beets.|
RI (daily reference intake) for iron
RI, 11 years of age and older: 14 mg
Women (menstruating): 15 mg
Pregnant women: Recommended intake (supplements) is 40-50 mg starting from the 10th week of pregnancy
Iron from animal sources (heme iron) is absorbed more easily than iron from vegetable sources (non-heme iron). Vitamin C enhances iron absorption. Inorganic iron supplements are not recommended, as they increase the risk of constipation and other adverse effects.
Avoid too much iron, it causes free radicals
Iron works as a catalyst for some particularly harmful free radicals called hydroxyl radicals and should therefore be ingested in proper quantities and always together with dietary antioxidants. High iron intake (especially from meat and supplements) can increase your risk of atherosclerosis, blood clots, and colon cancer. For that reason, people who are not iron-deficient should avoid iron supplements.
Zinc deficiencies are widespread
Zinc is a co-factor in over 1,000 enzyme processes. The mineral and trace element is bound to about 10 percent of the body’s protein. Our skin is one of the organs that contains the most zinc, and lack of zinc can therefore contribute to skin diseases and hair loss. This was seen in a study that is published in the science journal Nutrients.
Zinc is found in liver, meat, shellfish, dairy products, nuts, seeds, kernels, and beans. Zinc from animal sources has the best absorption. Vegetarians, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and older people are most likely to become zinc-deficient.
A large intake of sugar, calcium, and alcohol, regular use of birth control pills and different types of medicine, plus certain diseases and other factors may also increase the risk of a zinc deficiency.
|As we grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult to absorb zinc, and people can therefore technically be zinc-deficient, even though their diet contains plenty of good zinc sources.|
Hair loss, pattern baldness, and zinc supplementation
A study of 312 men and women suffering from regular hair loss (telogen effluvium), pattern baldness (Alopecia areata), and hereditary hair loss revealed that they all had statistically lower levels of zinc in their blood compared with a control group of people without hair problems. Moreover, zinc supplements had a therapeutic effect.
However, supplements do not appear to help people, who are not deficient in zinc.
Pattern baldness (Alopecia areta) is an autoimmune disease, where T lymphocytes have attacked the hair follicles in the affected area. Vitamin D, selenium, and omega-3 are able to counteract various types of inflammation.
|We need zinc in order to utilize vitamin A, which is important for skin health and for a number of other functions.|
RI, upper safe limit, and zinc supplementation
The RI (reference intake) level for age 11 years and older is 10 mg. According to the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), the upper safe intake level for zinc is 25 mg daily for adults and pregnant women. Many zinc supplements contain inorganic zinc sources such as zinc sulfate or zinc oxide, which it is difficult for the body to absorb. Organic zinc forms like zinc gluconate and zinc acetate have much better absorption and are easier for the body to utilize, so make sure to read the label carefully before you buy a zinc supplement.
Zinc supplements rarely cause side effects. Nausea and diarrhea are seen in some cases. Prolonged intake of large zinc quantities may inhibit the body’s uptake of iron and copper.
Zinc and copper should be ingested in the right balance
The body’s copper level must be balanced correctly with its zinc level. Copper is important for hair pigmentation, but deficiencies are rare. Copper poisoning may lead to a zinc deficiency. Water from the hot tap absorbs copper more easily from water pipes (than cold water does). Do not allow food to get in contact with copper. Birth control pills and estrogen therapy after menopause may increase blood levels of copper.
Make sure to get enough selenium for your hair and metabolism
Selenium is a trace element that supports over 30 different selenium-containing enzymes (selenoproteins), which are necessary for our metabolism and for the structure of our skin and hair. Selenium is also a powerful antioxidant that protects cells against free radicals.
We get selenium from sources like offal, fish, grain and other crops etc. The risk of a selenium deficiency is especially large in Europe and parts of China, where soil levels of the nutrient are low. Poor nutrient absorption and being HIV positive may increase the need for selenium.
Exposure to mercury from the air, amalgam fillings, and predatory fish like tuna also increases the need for selenium, the reason being that selenium, once it has reacted with mercury and formed the inert compound mercury selenide, is no longer available to support the body’s essential selenoproteins.
In Denmark, which is a low-selenium country, it is difficult to get adequate amounts of selenium from the diet. In fact, since the early 1970s, farmers have routinely supplemented their livestock with selenium to prevent hair loss, joint inflammation, and stress-induced heart attack among the animals. It also appears that being selenium-deficient may increase the risk of Hashimoto’s disease, where the metabolism slows down. Hair loss is seen with this condition.
Did you know that extreme fatigue, hair loss, dry skin, frayed nails, overweight, and double chin may be signs of slow metabolism? And did you know that slow metabolism (hypothyroidism) may be a result of lacking selenium and iodine?
RI, upper safe limit, and selenium supplementation
The RI (reference intake) level for selenium is 55 micrograms (in Denmark), and an estimated 20 percent of the Danish population consumes less than that. In countries like the United States and Japan, the average selenium intake is typically around 200 micrograms daily.
Selenium supplements can compensate for the low selenium intake. Selenium yeast that contains many different organic selenium compounds has the greatest similarity to a varied diet with different selenium sources. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established an upper safe intake level of 300 micrograms daily.
Overdose symptoms that typically occur as a result of ingesting far greater amounts include headache, dizziness, stomach pain, constipation, nausea, and rare cases of hair loss and nail deformities.
100 micrograms of selenium daily is what you need to saturate a vital selenoprotein
Selenoprotein P is an essential selenium-containing protein that is used as a marker for selenium levels in the blood. Studies show that the recommended intake level for selenium is not sufficient to ensure proper saturation of this selenoprotein. In order to saturate selenium protein P, one has to consume at least 100 micrograms of selenium daily.
Silica is not considered an essential nutrient for humans. However, this trace element is believed to be important for our hair, as it increases the lifespan of hair and adds shine to it. Scientific studies show that silica supplements have a therapeutic effect, but it all depends on their quality and bioavailability, according to an article that was published in 2016 in the Brazilian science journal Anais Brasileiros de Dermatalogia.
Silica occurs naturally in stinging nettle and dandelion, brown rice, barley groats, beer, dates, whole grain, beans and other vegetables, and fruit. Horsetail is one of the richest sources (but horsetail must boil for 15 minutes in order to extract the mineral.)
B vitamins generally
The different types of B vitamin are found in whole grain, oat meal, legumes, vegetables, fruit, brown rice, garlic, nuts, seeds, kernels, and brewer’s yeast in particular. We also get B vitamins from liver, meat, and fish.
B vitamins are water-soluble, and because they are not stored in the body, we need regular supplies of them. The uptake of B vitamins depends on stomach acid and the digestive system. B vitamins support the majority of enzyme processes in the body, and they are important for our skin and hair.
Lack of the different B vitamins is mainly due to an insufficiently balanced diet with too many refined foods, stress, stimulant overuse, birth control pills, antibiotics, diuretics, and antacids. Biotin (vitamin B7, vitamin B8) supports normal hair and is therefore included in many hair products. Studies show that lack of biotin may cause eczema and pattern baldness.
Lack of vitamin B3 can cause pellagra, a classical deficiency disease characterized by diarrhea, dementia, eczema, and pattern baldness. Pellagra mainly occurs in countries where people eat a low-protein diet – especially with corn, from which the body has difficulty with absorbing this B vitamin. Alcoholism and lack of the amino acid tryptophan (especially from animal protein) increases the risk of a vitamin B3 deficiency and developing pellagra.
If you take several vitamin B-containing supplements, it is a good idea to take them at different times of the day for an optimal effect.
B vitamins are water-soluble and therefore difficult to overdose on.
Ever cell in the body has vitamin D receptors.
According to animal studies, vitamin D is important for the health and cycles of hair follicles. For examples, in a study of mice with provoked Rickets (a disease that is normally caused by severe vitamin D deficiency), the animals also had hair loss.
A study of eight women with normal, chronic hair loss and hormone-induced hair loss showed that their levels of vitamin D in the blood were significantly lower than levels in the group of healthy controls.
Vitamin D is also important for the immune defense and for regulating inflammation, so it possible that the nutrient plays a role in the development of pattern baldness, which is an autoimmune condition. Lack of vitamin D is mainly a result of too little sun exposure, having dark skin, being overweight, having type 2 diabetes and having poor fat absorption.
Many researchers believe that the RI intake level (reference intake) is far too low, and the experts still haven’t reached an agreement about the optimal intake level, which varies from person to person.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established a 100 microgram/day safe upper intake level for older children and adults (including pregnant and breastfeeding women).
|It is a good idea to have your doctor measure your vitamin D levels. Many people are vitamin D-deficient during the winter period, unless they take a high-dosed supplement.|
Vitamin A activates the stem cells in the hair follicles, and the mechanisms are highly complex. Vitamin A is also an important antioxidant.
Vegetables such as carrots and spinach contain beta-carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A.
Pure vitamin A is called retinol and is primarily found in animal fat. A study of mice showed that provoked vitamin A deficiency causes hair loss. On the other hand, human studies show that vitamin A poising (overdosing) may also cause hair loss.
Symptoms of vitamin A poisoning do not show before the liver is saturated with the vitamin and continues to receive a large quantity of vitamin A (retinol).
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established 3,000 micrograms as the daily upper safe intake level for vitamin A.
Pregnant women should not exceed 1,000 micrograms daily, however, as this may harm the fetus.
Taking a vitamin A supplement without eating may cause transient symptoms such as nausea.
Antioxidants counteract oxidative stress
Oxidative stress is a condition that occurs in the body, when the balance between potentially harmful free radicals and protective antioxidants is disturbed. The number of free radicals is increased by stress, elevated glucose levels, ageing processes, inflammation, poisoning, smoking, and radiation. Our only source of protection against free radicals is different types of antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E plus selenium, zinc, Q10, and various plant compounds with different mechanisms of action. Hair loss is associated with oxidative stress and lack of antioxidant enzymes that protect the cells in our skin and hair follicles.
Overview of risk factors and their tendency to cause specific nutrient deficiencies in connection with hair:
Malnutrition: Many nutrients
Poor absorption: Many nutrients
Ageing processes: Many nutrients
Lack of stomach acid: Iron, zinc
Living in Europe and China: Selenium
Lack of sun: Vitamin D
Oxidative stress: Vitamin C, selenium, zinc, and other antioxidants
Vegetarians/vegans: Iron, zinc, selenium, and vitamin B12
Pregnancy: Iron, folic acid, zinc
Alcoholism: Vitamin B1, vitamin B3, folic acid, zinc
Birth control pills: Zinc, selenium
Diuretics: Vitamin B3, zinc
Antacids and medicine against heart burn: Iron, zinc
NSAID preparations: Iron’
Corticosteroids: Zinc, vitamin D, vitamin A
Mercury poisoning: Selenium
Too much calcium from diet/supplements: Iron, zinc, magnesium
Practical tips for taking care of your hair
- Use a mild shampoo and remember that too frequent washing of your hair may dry it out.
- Use conditioner if your hair tends to be dry
- Protect your hair against chemicals and harsh treatment
- Avoid altogether or be careful with blow-drying your hair and using hair straighteners (flattening irons)
Emily L Guo and Rajani Katta. Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatol Pract Concept 2017
Youichi Ogawa et al. Zinc and Skin Disorders. Nutrients 2018
Lutz Shomburg. Dietary Selenium and Human Health. Nutrients 2017
Lidiane Advincula de Araujo et al. Use of Silicon for skin and hair care: an approach of chemical forms available and efficacy. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia 2016
EFSA: Table 1. Summary of Tolerable Upper intake Levels (UL) of minerals
Pernille Lund. Har du problemer med dit stofskifte? Ny Videnskab. 2015
Pernille Lund. Sund dog smuk hele livet. Ny Videnskab 2016
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