Whether you realize it or not, every day you lose some hair. Your body then replaces it with some new strands as part of the many renewal processes that are built into our systems. As you age, the reappearance of new hair gradually slows. This phenomenon is more noticeable in men, whose “male-pattern baldness” is genetically determined and can begin as early as age 20. For women, hair normally thins after age 50, and significant hair loss before that age is rare. Hair loss can also be tied to a wide variety of conditions not related to your family history, such as nutritional deficiencies, side effects of illnesses or a particular drug, child birth, hormonal shifts, or periods of increased stress.
If alternative medicine had a way to make the body grow more hair without fail, it would be so popular that no one would call it “alternative.” While we don’t offer any miracle cures we’ll explain how the treatments we’ve used at WholeHealth Chicago can help.
What are Hair Problems?
The hair problems people complain about most are hair loss, graying hair, brittle hair, dandruff, and slow growth. Though most of these problems are natural signs of aging or part of our genetic makeup, there are some simple preventative measures, supplements, and home remedies that may help some of these hair complaints. Even though hair isn’t living tissue–it’s made up of keratin, the same fibrous protein in fingernails and toenails–a constant supply of nutrient-rich blood is needed to nourish the follicles in the scalp from which each hair grows. Typically, hair grows an average of an inch every two months. The average head can shed up to 100 of its 100,000 hairs every day. These discarded strands are usually replaced by the same number of new hairs growing in.
- Crusting or flaking of scalp skin.
- Excessive or increased hair loss during washing or combing.
- Changes in color, texture, or growth rate.
- Scalp irritation.
What Causes Hair Problems?
The hair is a reflection of the body’s general health. Its condition changes for the worse with stress, nutritional deficiencies, hormone shifts, environmental factors, an underactive thyroid, and immune disorders. Cancer chemotherapy, exposure to radiation, and certain medications can also cause hair to fall out. Genetic disposition can also cause hair problems.
Treatment and Prevention
The best-known hair-growth promoter, minoxidil, is now available over-the-counter, making it easily available to anyone who wants to try it. Using it is a lifetime commitment, though; if you are part of the 40% for whom minoxidil causes enough new hair growth to make a noticeable difference, you have to keep using it or the new hair will disappear!
Another popular hair drug, finasteride, has the same effect. Both drugs are dangerous for pregnant women because they can cause birth defects; finasteride isn’t approved for women at all. These drugs are nonetheless probably the best options for androgenetic alopecia, the well-known male and female pattern baldness (receding hairline and hair loss on the crown for men, and general hair thinning for women). These common types of hair loss don’t respond to non-drug strategies.
But if you have a different type of hair loss or symptoms, and aren’t interested in expensive hair weaves or implants, it may make sense to try some nutrition and behavior changes first. Many of these changes benefit the health of not only the hair but also the whole body.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a wise idea to talk to your doctor before starting a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Most hair supplements work the same way: They deliver needed nutrients to the hair roots and help build stronger, healthier hair. The supplements listed here can be safely taken with each other and with prescription hair-restoring drugs such as minoxidil.
Flaxseed oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which can make hair more glossy and healthy looking. It may soothe the itching and flaking of dandruff and help get rid of psoriasis and eczema on the scalp.
Evening primrose oil (or borage oil) acts as a hair and scalp moisturizer.
The mineral zinc builds healthy hair and may slow hair loss. Because it can stimulate the thyroid, it’s especially helpful to people whose thinning and brittle hair is due to an underactive thyroid.
If you’re taking zinc long term, it’s wise to take copper as well, since zinc interferes with copper absorption. In addition, copper is an essential component of melanin, the pigment in hair and skin. In cases where gray hair is caused by a copper deficiency, taking copper may restore hair to its natural color.
Biotin and vitamin B complex may strengthen hair, act as a hair and scalp conditioner, and slow down hair loss. Biotin may even stimulate new hair growth if the hair loss can be traced to a biotin deficiency. Another B vitamin, PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) may protect hair roots and help prevent hair loss. It can also reverse graying in cases where the cause is a deficiency of PABA or other B vitamins.
Selenium may promote hair growth, but do not exceed 200 mcg of this mineral a day as higher amounts may be toxic. Another antioxidant, vitamin A, can remedy a flaky scalp if you have a deficit of this nutrient. But more isn’t always better: Too much vitamin A (more than 100,000 IU a day) taken over a long time can actually cause hair loss as well as liver damage and birth defects (among other bodily problems).
Grape seed extract is a high-potency antioxidant capable of protecting virtually every cell in the body from free-radical damage. Although not specifically designed for hair loss, researchers recently discovered that grapeseed extract increased hair growth in lab animals.
By their ability to block the effects of the male hormone testosterone, the herbs saw palmetto and pygeum africanum may be helpful in conditions of male pattern baldness in either men or women.
Some Chinese herbs such as dong quai, polygoni multifiori radix (ho-shou-wu) and Siberian ginseng have also been used traditionally in China to prevent the hair loss and graying that come with age. The exact mechanism is unknown, but may be related to a mild estrogenic effect.
Eat a balanced and sensible diet to ensure you are getting essential nutrients.
Use a mild shampoo. Afterward, gently towel hair dry and use a conditioner.
Avoid exposing hair to chlorinated pool water or any other chemical solutions. If you use perms, straighteners, or dyes, you may need to compensate for the damage they cause by babying your hair with gentle shampoos and extra conditioners.
Avoid excessive dry heat such as that from blow dryers and curling irons.
Protect scalp and hair from damaging sun rays by wearing a comfortable hat.
Massage your scalp weekly to stimulate blood flow and relieve stress. Sluggish blood flow and stress can both cause hair loss.
Alopecia areata, a specific type of patchy hair loss common to men and women, was recently shown to respond to essential oils of thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedarwood. These were added to a carrier oil of jojoba oil and massaged into the scalp daily. After seven months, researchers found that 44% of the patients had noticeable results, compared with only 15% of the controls.
Don’t wear tight wigs or hats that can cause hair to rub off ( called friction alopecia).
Keep braids or ponytails loose. Otherwise, hair can fall out due to the tight pulling (called traction alopecia).
For women with thinning hair, a short hair style can make hair look fuller. Mousses, gels, and hairspray can lend extra body and hide thinning hair. But be kind to your scalp: Use only small amounts of these products so the cells and hair follicles can breathe.
Quit smoking. English scientists found that smokers were four times more likely to have gray hair than nonsmokers and were more prone to hair loss.
When to Call a Doctor
- If hair loss is sudden and comes with other symptoms such as missed menstrual periods, fatigue, cold extremities and dryness of the skin. You may be experiencing symptoms of an underactive thyroid.
- If your scalp becomes dry, crusty, or extremely itchy.
- If hair loss is accompanied by skin changes in other parts of the body such as raised bumps or thick scaling.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Conventional and integrative medicine can work together nicely to treat most hair problems. If you suspect that a medical condition (such as scalp disease or a thyroid disorder) may be responsible, see your physician for a checkup.
If no medical problem is found, consider your hair in terms of your whole life: eating habits, emotional stresses, and the day-to-day care (or cosmetic abuse) of your hair. Then use the entire supplement list as directed, every day for at least six months.
If hair loss is your major problem and you’ve made all the “right” lifestyle changes but still see no appreciable results, consider talking to your doctor about one of the new prescription medicines for hair loss, such as minoxidil.
How to Take the Supplements
Both flaxseed oil and evening primrose oil will help combat dryness in the hair and scalp; the essential fatty acids in the flaxseed oil also reduce itching and flaking. Not only should you notice increased silkiness and lustrousness in your hair, but by using the flaxseed oil, your skin should become softer and smoother as well. Evening primrose oil is the source of another essential fatty acid, gamma linoleic acid (GLA), also necessary for healthful hair and skin.
The zinc with copper, vitamin B complex (with biotin and PABA) all contribute to healthy hair growth and prevent excessive hair loss. If hair loss is due to a deficiency of biotin, taking the B-complex regularly may even restore the lost hair.
Taking grape seed extract, a potent antioxidant, will help to protect the delicate hair follicles from free-radical damage; it should also aid in preserving the collagen in your skin, including the scalp.
The antioxidant selenium has long been used in dandruff shampoos and may also aid in hair growth. Vitamin A, another antioxidant, is well known for skin and hair benefits. However, excessive amounts of either of these micronutrients can be toxic to the body. Your daily multivitamin and antioxidant complex probably contains enough vitamin A so that you don’t need any additional amount.
For special consideration
If you are female and seem to be developing a male-pattern baldness, try adding the herb saw palmetto (160 mg a day). It may be beneficial because it blocks the effects of the male hormone testosterone.
If you have problems with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), this may reflect hormonal imbalances adversely affecting your hair. Consider using either chasteberry (400 to 500 mg standardized extract or 40 drops liquid extract added to an 8-ounce glass of water once a day) or a PMS herbal combination (2 pills twice a day when not menstruating) to treat your PMS and see if your hair benefits as well.
If you are interested in traditional Chinese medicine, try combinations of such Chinese herbs as dong quai (200 mg 3 times a day OR 30 drops [1.5 ml] fluid extract 3 times a day) or Siberian ginseng (200 mg each morning). Important:
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.