Is your crowning glory looking a little lacklustre? Before you dig into hair products and treatments, examine first what’s on your plate. What fuels our body and mind are also key factors for hair health.
“Eating a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding excessive stress, extreme diets and fast weight loss are vital in maintaining healthy hair growth,” says Lisa Caddy, a certified trichologist with Philip Kingsley, a leading authority in hair and scalp health from London.
The irony: what many people think of as a healthy diet – that is, mainly consisting of fruit and vegetables, with minimal protein and calories – often doesn’t include all the elements needed for optimum hair growth, Caddy says.
To function at their best, the cells in the hair and throughout the body need a balance of proteins, complex carbohydrates, iron, vitamins and minerals.
Meats, especially red meats, are particularly important because they’re the richest sources of ferritin, a stored iron that helps the body produce hair cell protein.
“If you have a [ferritin] deficiency, the growth of hair cells can be badly affected … vegans, vegetarians, and those who choose not to eat red meats are most susceptible. This is especially true of menstruating women,” says Caddy, who adds that ferritin deficiency is by far the most common cause of hair loss in women.
Lisa Caddy, certified trichologist
Dr Zoe Draelos, a dermatologist practising in North Carolina and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, says vegetarians need to supplement their diet with other complete, or whole, sources of protein, such as cheese, milk and yogurt.
Complete proteins are those that contain all the essential amino acids that our diets need. Some proteins in vegetables are not complete sources of protein, says Draelos. Taking multivitamins will not make up for a lack of dietary protein.
Avoiding calories altogether has an even greater detrimental effect on hair. Though hair cells are among the fastest growing cells in the body, they will usually be the first to suffer when you don’t eat enough because they are not vital to survival.
“Crash diets literally starve your follicles of vital nutrients and energy, and can cause many hairs at once to prematurely enter the shedding phase of the cycle,” says Caddy. “Nutrients will always first be sent to parts of your body that really need them – like your heart – and only then, if there’s enough left over, will your hair benefit.”
Hongkongers’ high-stress lifestyles aren’t doing their hair health any favours either.
“Stress can, through a convoluted route, cause or worsen hair loss and hair thinning in some individuals. It can also cause or trigger flare-ups of dandruff, which has been proven to worsen hair loss in some instances,” says Caddy. She will be in town this month to conduct a series of consultations and workshops on the right diet and lifestyle for optimum hair and scalp health.
Dr Flor Mayoral, a clinical instructor in the departments of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, believes that stress may be the primary reason for unexplained hair loss.
It’s normal to lose about 80 to 100 hairs a day. But sudden excessive hair shedding, or telogen effluvium, can occur up to three months after a stressful event.
Life-changing events such as childbirth or surgery also can cause hair loss. Mayoral explains that during these times, the body takes a “time-out” from growing hair to concentrate on recovery and healing. Hair growth slows and some hairs could shed and not grow back right away.
After the initial hair loss, hair usually grows back in six to nine months.
Hair loss is a normal response to stress, says Mayoral, but patients should see a dermatologist for proper evaluation to rule out other medical causes.
In general, hair is a good indicator of a person’s overall health, Draelos says. She says examining our hair is like looking at tree rings – it’s an indication of what’s happened in the past.
The good news is that hair loss as a result of a bad diet or deficiency will correct itself once the underlying cause is put right, Caddy says. The same goes for hair loss following stress, pregnancy or illness.
“These are termed ‘temporary’,” she says. “The hair follicle is still active and has not been damaged.”
Caddy recommends the Trichotherapy holistic hair and scalp regime an as “extremely effective” treatment for most types of hair loss.
She says the therapy addresses reduced density from all angles: externally, with a protein spray that strengthens and plumps the hair shaft; via the scalp with stimulating, anti-androgenic drops; and internally through supplements that give hair the nutrients it needs.
Hair loss that involves a gradual reduction in the diameter and length of individual strands is usually influenced by genetics, Caddy says. Called “follicle miniaturisation”, it’s due to hair follicles being genetically predisposed to be sensitive to normal levels of circulating male hormones, known as androgens.
This type of hair loss tends to always be less aggressive in women because they naturally have lower levels of testosterone than men.
“Risk of having follicle miniaturisation is increased when your mother, father or either grandparent had hair thinning,” says Caddy. “However, it can be traced back much further in the family tree.”
Crash diets literally starve your follicles of vital nutrients and energy
Caddy speaks from experience. She inherited her mother’s fine hair and showed “noticeable thinning” after turning 40; the stress from a family bereavement a few years ago caused a considerable amount of shedding.
“All of a sudden, I was aware of being able to see my scalp more, which sent me into panic mode,” she says. “I knew this excessive shedding would stop and the hairs would be replaced, but it became obvious I had inherited the gene for pattern hair loss.” Asian hair usually has a thick diameter with a perfectly round shape, Caddy says, making it the strongest hair type. Asians also have the longest hair growth cycle – up to nine years, or roughly twice as long as other hair textures. With a longer growth cycle, the shedding rate should be less – meaning fewer than 100 hairs shed daily.
Women with genetic pattern hair loss can reverse the condition through both oral and topical anti-androgens, she says. For men, it can be slowed by applying topical drops, but cannot be reversed unless a hair transplant is performed.
Unfortunately, people with scarring hair loss cannot reverse their condition, except through surgery such as skin expansion, says Caddy. Irreversible hair loss could be caused by autoimmune diseases or external injury such as chemical burns or traction (hair pulling).
“In these instances, the hair follicle is scarred or completely lacking, and unable to produce hair,” she says.
Advancements in science, however, offer new hope to the follicularly challenged. In a recent study published in PLOS One, scientists from Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in California used human pluripotent stem cells to generate new hair in mice.
Says researcher Alexey Terskikh, associate professor in the Development, Ageing and Regeneration Programme at Sanford-Burnham: “Our stem cell method provides an unlimited source of cells from the patient for transplant and isn’t limited by the availability of existing hair follicles.”