For women, hair has many meanings. A woman’s hair is part of her style and a distinct part of her appearance. It can also be a reflection of her health and a statement about what she’s been through. When a woman goes through a period of hair loss or thinning, she can feel insecure about how she is seen in the world, and she may wonder whether she will ever have good hair again.
Over the years, I have worked with many women with hair loss. Often this is caused by thyroid disorders, hormonal imbalances, anemia, periods of high stress or insufficient nutrient absorption. In the last two years, I have seen a marked increase in the number of women concerned with hair loss. Though the same conditions are still responsible for many women’s hair loss, we now have more challenges when it comes to maintaining a full head of hair.
Normal hair growth and loss occur in cycles and not all hairs go through the same cycle at the same time. During the growth stage, hairs grow for a period of 2-6 years before being shed for a period of 3-6 months. On average, hair grows at a rate of 0.35 mm per day and when in a shedding phase, 100 hairs can be lost in a day. (NDNR December 2013 Watson) Due to the inequities of these cycles, it may look like you are losing great volumes of hair during a loss phase and then with the slow hair regrowth you may not be able to see new hairs until a substantial amount of time has passed.
The hair is more a reflection of your health history over the last 6-18 months than your current health status. With causes of hair loss ranging from systemic disease and autoimmune conditions to drug use, chemical exposure, chemotherapy, iron deficiency, fever, weight loss and severe emotional or physical stress, we need to consider the health history when diagnosing the cause of hair loss. Current hair loss may be a result of a health issue that has since resolved but you are just seeing the impact now.
In naturopathic medicine, we must first diagnose the cause of disease before treating it. Instead of suppressing symptoms, our goal is to uncover what is causing the symptoms and treat the problem at its core. Once we have determined the cause, treating hair loss can vary widely from balancing thyroid or sex hormones, to improving nutrient absorption and assimilation, managing stress, treating underlying disease or regulating an overactive immune system.
For improving the health and vitality of the hair and providing the building blocks for hair production, the following nutrients are essential:
- Biotin, a B vitamin, is crucial for the growth of hair, skin, and nails and is best used in conjunction with a B vitamin complex.
- Essential fatty acids (primarily the omega 3’s) are also important for hair growth and maintenance. Food sources include: fish (salmon, anchovy, sardine and krill,) flaxseeds, spinach, kale, walnut and pumpkin seeds.
- Iron, a mineral needed for oxygenation of the blood, is important for hair health. Iron should only be supplemented if a blood test shows an iron deficiency anemia or low ferritin count. Iron can be stored in the body and high iron levels are just as damaging as low levels.
- L-lysine, an amino acid needed for the hair, is found in beef, chicken, beans and quinoa.
- Vitamin D3. Here’s another area where vitamin D shines! Blood levels are the best way to assess current vitamin D status and to determine the amount needed for supplementation. Without a blood test it is often safe to take 800 - 1,000 mg per day.
- Zinc. This mineral is present in all of our cells and plays an important role in thyroid hormone production. Pumpkin seeds (pepitas) are an excellent source of zinc as well as providing beneficial essential fatty acids.
Herbal formulas such as those containing Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) leaves and stems, Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) stalk, Burdock (Arctium lappa) root and Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) leaves and roots provide vitamin, mineral and nutrient constituents needed for hair growth and maintenance.
Some causes of hair loss are due to insufficient circulation to the scalp which can be improved with scalp massage (plus it feels really good!) For scalp massage use a base oil that is good for the scalp such as jojoba oil, vitamin E or olive oil. You can also add essential oils such as rosemary, cedarwood or chamomile to the base oil to further stimulate hair growth. For each 1 Tbsp of base oil, add 3 drops of essential oil. Apply oil to fingertips and gently massage the scalp in small circular motions from the temples (above the ears) working your way up the sides of the head to the top (crown). Then massage from the back of the neck up the back of the head to the crown. Practice taking deep, full breaths while doing your massage and allow yourself to feel the sensation of the fingertips on the scalp while releasing any thoughts. Just be in the moment and let go of any concerns. Deep breathing will also increase the blood flow to the scalp bringing with it fresh nutrients and oxygen.