Health Conditions

Eating for Healthier Hair

BY Conan Milner TIMEMay 3, 2022 PRINT

All mammals grow hair, but the head hair of humans is unique. It’s one of the first things we notice about people. Unlike eyes, noses, and other prominent facial features, we have significant control over our hair. We can cut or color it with ease, creating a whole new look on a whim.

Your hair tells a story about who you are, where you’re going, and what you do. The ultimate goal of a hairstyle is to present the version of yourself you most wish the world to see. Teens often seek styles that scream rebellion and nonconformity, while young professionals are more likely to choose traditional, trustworthy cuts. In some cultures, women cover their hair as a display of modesty, while in other social circles, ladies go for big, attention-grabbing styles.

Because hair is such a malleable feature, its expressiveness can rise to any occasion. On her wedding day, a woman may put hours into a worthy head of hair, despite her usual habit of taking just a few seconds to tie it back in a bun. Those who lose hair, however, also lose this form of self-expression, and are restricted to sending messages they may not want to convey. A thick head of hair typically signifies youth, strength, and virility, while thinning hair (also known as alopecia) can be a sign of stress, advanced age, or illness.

It’s one thing to shave your head when you’re free to make a bold, bald statement—but involuntary hair loss can be devastating. The person you see in the mirror no longer looks right. As you watch your hairline recede or your bald spot grow, you might perceive your former self fading away too. With images of full, luscious locks, hair loss products capitalize on our yearning for youth.

Although results are rarely if ever as good as the promises, the quest for hair improvement is big business, with sales totaling more than $85 billion per year worldwide. A lot of that is spent on things like conditioner and styling services, but a significant and growing portion is spent on hair restoration. According to a recent report, the global hair restoration market is anticipated to reach $13.6 billion by 2028.

There are numerous products and procedures that claim to regrow hair, but most of the methods promoted don’t work. According to the American Hair Loss Association, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to public awareness of hair loss, “99 percent of all products being marketed in the less than ethical hair loss treatment industry are completely ineffective for the majority of those who use them.” Even products that do work can come at a cost to our health.

Consider Propecia, a pharmaceutical clinically proven and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat male pattern baldness (also known as androgenetic alopecia). The active ingredient is finasteride, a chemical that blocks the hormone that drives male pattern baldness. This hormone is called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). The problem is that DHT also happens to play a major role in sexual function, including maintaining the integrity of the male reproductive organ’s nerves, connective tissue, and signaling pathways—blocking DHT with a drug can contribute to several unwanted side effects. Studies suggest that finasteride can cause erectile problems, kill libido, promote male breast cancer, and cause ejaculatory disorders.

Still, if having more hair is your ultimate goal, finasteride can deliver. Propecia can slow or stop hair loss for some men. For others, hair can even be regrown. Of course, women also experience hair loss, but are not prescribed Propecia. That’s because female hair loss has different causes, and the drug can lead to serious problems for women who take it. Women are also advised to avoid unprotected sex with partners who may be on Propecia, to avoid causing birth defects in the event of pregnancy. And, women who are pregnant or could become pregnant are discouraged from touching broken or crushed Propecia tablets, because finasteride can enter the bloodstream from the skin.

Healthy Hair Help

If you see several strands of hair circling the drain at the end of your shower, don’t fret. Even those with the thickest, richest manes experience some hair loss because we all shed hair constantly. Adults typically lose from 70 to 100 head hairs per day, but most of us constantly grow new strands, so the loss isn’t noticeable. It’s when sections of the scalp stop growing and the skin beneath starts showing, that concerns emerge. The easiest way to combat hair loss is by hiding it—with a wig or hat, for example—but even the most tasteful toupee won’t address the underlying issue.

Hair loss is a window into our internal health and can stem from several causes. We know that most male hair loss is hormone driven. For women who lose hair, it’s often due to another type of hormonal problem, such as an underperforming thyroid or exhausted adrenal glands. Sustained stress can make your hair fall out. So can exposure to a toxin like chemotherapy. However, if we can return hormone levels to normal, manage our stress, and cease any toxic exposure, hair can return.

Nutrition

Another common cause of alopecia—and one of the easiest to fix—is poor nutrition. You are what you eat; that’s certainly true of hair. It may not hurt when we cut it, but hair is still living tissue that requires nutrients to grow, just like the rest of the body.

Starve yourself for long enough, and you’re likely to lose your hair. Examples can be found among those who cut calories too severely in search of quick weight loss. The crash diet method may help you drop unwanted pounds, but if your body lacks nutrition, hair growth is one of the first things to go. With too little food to fuel its numerous biological processes, your body channels energy to its most essential needs as a matter of survival, and hair is low on the list of priorities.

But it isn’t just about consuming enough calories. Hair requires specific nutrients to thrive. Just consider its composition. Hair is made of a tough protein called keratin, the same stuff our skin and fingernails are made of. For the body to manufacture keratin, it needs protein. Increasing protein intake alone can prevent or even reverse hair loss in some cases, according to a 2017 review from Kaiser Permanente.

Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are all fine protein sources, but you don’t have to be on the Atkins diet to ensure a full head of hair. Dairy products and vegetable sources of protein, like nuts, seeds, and beans, can also boost your daily intake. Another key nutrient deficiency linked to hair loss is iron. Beef and shellfish are good animal iron sources. Seeds and beans are at the top of the plant-based iron list, and so are spinach, beans, broccoli, and figs.

If you’re looking for a safe and healthy hair-promoting beverage, consider stinging nettle tea. Touching a fresh leaf of this common weed gives a painful poke, but once it’s dried, its trademark sting vanishes. A dark but mild nettle brew is rich in protein, iron, and other nutrients hair needs to grow. Nettles are also a good source of silica, a mineral that promotes hair strength.

Nettle does not have FDA approval for treating hair loss, but studies have shown that it can safely reduce DHT, the hormone responsible for male pattern baldness. Women can drink it too—nettles have been used by pregnant women for centuries. Drink some tea for the nutritive benefits, and try a nettle hair wash to stimulate and nourish your scalp.

Conan Milner
Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.
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