Once thought to be purely genetic in cause, we are beginning to understand that there are a number reasons why we lose our hair — and nutritional status and dietary intake is certainly part of the fairly common issue.
According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, close to 50 per cent of men and women experience some form of hair loss or thinning throughout the lifecycle.
In his 2018 paper on the connection between nutrition and hair loss, Dr. Rajendrasingh Rajput wrote, “The understanding of hair loss is changing. At present hair loss is agreed to be a multifactorial combination of various intertwined mechanisms,” such as pollution, hormones and vitamin deficiencies.
As a dietitian, I’m the first to admit that food can’t fix everything. In fact, certain types of hair loss may be an inevitable result of genetics, but that doesn’t mean optimizing your nutrition isn’t a good idea. If you are noticing a little lightness on top, there are certain foods and nutrients that can help you on the road to a healthy head of hair.
Iron deficiency anemia is a common problem globally, and one of the leading nutritional risk factors for thinning hair as well as hair loss. Traditionally thought of as a “red meat nutrient,” iron is actually found in a wide variety of plant-based sources including soybeans, lentils, kidney beans, hemp seeds, sesame seeds and chia seeds, among others.
When consuming iron from plant-based foods it’s important to incorporate a source of vitamin C — fruit and vegetables — to enhance the absorption.
Inadequate Vitamin D intake is a pretty significant public health concern here in Canada because we simply don’t eat that much fish — the main dietary source of Vitamin D — nor is the sun strong enough for more half the year to allow our bodies to synthesize the vitamin.
Vitamin D used to be mostly thought of as a bone health nutrient, but more recently, it has been linked with just about every health condition under the sun, including the health of our hair.
While eating fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, at least twice a week is advisable both for its vitamin D and omega-3 content, a daily vitamin D supplement of at least 400 IU may be necessary for many Canadians to ensure adequate vitamin D status over the winter months.
Biotin is, by some margin, the most discussed nutrient in the world of hair health. In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of it because it is one of the more popular supplements on Amazon owing to its alleged benefits to the health of the hair and nails.
But there’s only one problem — biotin deficiency is rare and unless you are deficient it probably won’t give you a thick, luscious head of hair.
People with digestive issues leading to nutrient absorption problems, those who consume too many raw egg whites and the long-term use of seizure medication, may all increase the risk of biotin deficiency.
Some studies also suggest pregnancy and lactation may play a role in affecting biotin status and metabolism.
But biotin as a preventative measure in hair loss?
“The custom of treating women complaining of hair loss in an indiscriminate manner with oral biotin supplementation is to be rejected,” wrote Dr Ralph Trüeb in the Journal of Trichology, which is the study of the hair and scalp.
Basically, biotin is not a miraculous hair growth nutrient.
Other nutrients that may help hair
There are many other nutrients that — while the evidence is not overwhelming — have generated some interest as potentially important when it comes to hair thinning.
B12. Vitamin B12 is widely available in foods of animal origin, like beef, salmon and liver. Vegans may need to rely on foods like nutritional yeast, plant-based meats and foods fortified with B12, such as fortified soy and almond milk.
Zinc. This essential mineral is found in rich supply in beef, chicken, nuts, seeds and legumes, like lentils and chickpeas.
Folate. An important nutrient for female fertility and conception, you can get your folate from a number of foods, but particularly green ones like edamame, broccoli, asparagus, spinach and avocado.
“Whenever I see a patient with hair loss, I consider checking certain labs such as iron, vitamin D, and zinc. Deficiencies in any of these can result in alopecia [hair loss]. I also ask them about any specific dietary restrictions, because a diet rich in protein can help hair grow strong and healthy, says Dr. Joyce Park, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Northern California.
Even if there is probably no such thing as a hair growth superfood, improving the overall balance of your dietary pattern won’t hurt. In fact, hair and scalp health can only benefit from better food choices. Keep in mind, though, that too much of a good thing is a real concept in the world of nutrition, and excessive supplementation of certain nutrients like Vitamin A, zinc, selenium, iron may actually hurt, rather than help.
Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at AndyTheRD.com
Don’t miss the latest on COVID-19, reopening and life. Subscribe to Healthing’s daily newsletter COVID Life.