Experts say that a healthy diet with the right mix of protein, iron and other nutrients can help improve the health, look and feel of your hair. Dermatologist Amy McMichael, MD, says, “To a doctor, healthy hair grows appropriately out of every follicle. It is not easily broken and is connected to a healthy scalp. It’s long and full as you’d like it to be. It’s bouncy, shiny and manageable.”
“A balanced diet can give your hair all the nutrients it needs to satisfy both definitions for healthy hair”, says McMichael, who directs the Hair Disorder Clinic at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Healthy Hair: Protein Is Important
Your hair needs the same well-rounded diet that provides all the recommended vitamins, minerals and other nutrients needed for good health in the rest of your body. For example, a strand of hair is composed of mostly protein. This means that your hair needs protein to grow.
“Hair and nails are both protein fibers,” says dermatologist Paradi Mirmirani, MD, of the Permanente Medical Group in Vallejo, California. She is also a member of the North American Hair Research Society.
About 90% of your hair is in the growing phase. For each hair strand, this growing phase lasts 2 to 3 years. By the end of that time, hair enters a resting phase that lasts about 3 months before it is shed and replaced by new hair. If you don’t get enough protein in your diet, a disproportionate number of hairs may go into the resting phase.
A typical scalp has about 120,000-150,000 strands of hair and sheds about 50 to 100 strands each day. Most people don’t even notice that small amount. But when an unusually large number of hair strands enter the resting phase, hair loss can become noticeable.
Iron and Other Nutrients
Protein isn’t the only nutrient needed to maintain healthy hair. You also need iron, vitamin E and trace minerals such as selenium, copper, and magnesium to help keep your hair in good shape. “These are all involved in the production of the various proteins that make up your hair,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly called the American Dietetic Association).
Not getting enough iron can cause hair loss.
“The best source of iron in your diet is meat,” Gerbstadt says, “Clams, oysters and organ meat top the list. But there are problems with eating a lot of organ meat,” Gerbstadt says. “Lean meat, though – pork, beef and fish are good sources.”
Good vegetarian sources of iron include fortified cereals, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, white beans, lentils and spinach. The problem with iron from non-animal sources is that the body absorbs iron less efficiently from plants. “It’s possible to eat a vegetarian diet paying attention to iron and still not get enough,” Gerbstadt says.
Her advice: Talk to your doctor about your diet and ask for an iron test so your doctor can check on whether you should consider taking an iron supplement.
Vitamin D And Your Hair
Though the evidence still isn’t clear, some studies suggest that vitamin D may play a role in the hair cycle. Mirmirani says, “We can get vitamin D from the sun but dermatologists don’t recommend a lot of sun exposure.”
Mirmirani adds saying that you can also get vitamin D from fortified foods such as milk, orange juice and cereals. According to some studies, many Americans don’t get enough vitamin D and the actual recommended dosage is controversial. She recommends talking to your doctor about your vitamin D needs and whether or not you should take a supplement.
Are Hair Supplements Necessary?
“Any vitamin deficiency will cause hair loss. The best source for the nutrients you need is a true, well-balanced diet. All the vitamins are important, such as Vitamins B, C, E,” says Carolyn Jacob, MD, founder and medical director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology.
When Mirmirani was asked on her opinion on adding zinc or biotin supplements to a diet, she says, “I don’t check the zinc or biotin levels in patients. It’s very hard in an American diet for those things to become deficient. And there hasn’t been any good evidence that taking zinc or biotin supplements actually offers any benefits for hair. Extra biotin probably won’t hurt but it’s not clear it does much good either.”
Jacob explains that if you take a supplement, you will need to tell your doctor so it’s part of your health records. Your health care providers should know about everything you take even if it’s natural or didn’t need a prescription.
Hair Health And Weight Loss Diets
Weight loss, especially rapid weight loss from a restrictive diet, can cause major hair loss. Gerbstadt says, “Master hairdressers know without being told when their clients are dieting – just from the changes in the hair.”
“Women on a very strict calorie-deprived diet will lose weight very quickly. But it’s hard to ensure they get the nutrients they need. Even if you lose weight very slowly on a doctor-approved program, you can still have associated hair loss” says McMichael. Weight loss can also stress the body which contributes to hair loss. “It’s common to shed hair after losing 15 pounds or more. Be patient. If you’re healthy, your hair will come back after your weight stabilizes”, says McMichael.