Healthy hair

Every day most people shed around 50 to 100 hairs, but with over 100,000 hairs in the scalp this amount of hair loss generally doesn't lead to any noticeable thinning or loss of scalp hair. However some people may experience more severe hair loss on their head, and possibly all over their body. While this may not be much of a concern to some, for others hair loss can be devastating and life changing.

There are a number of reasons why hair can fall out, become thin or start to look unhealthy. Genetics, hormonal factors, medical conditions and medications can all play a part, while evidence suggests lifestyle factors can also be a cause. Nutritional deficiencies and emotional stress in particular are thought to have significant impact on healthy hair.

This factsheet will explore what causes hair loss and how including specific nutrients in your diet could be key to keeping hair healthy and strong.

What causes hair loss?

The reasons for hair loss in men and women will vary, but there tends to be several common causes that affect both sexes. 

Hormonal imbalances 

Hormones are largely responsible for many types of hair loss, particularly male and female pattern baldness, hair loss during pregnancy and after the menopause.

Medical conditions and illnesses 

Thyroid problems, scalp infections, and other skin disorders such as lupus can trigger hair loss. The good news is once the underlying infection is treated, hair will grow back.

Medications

Healthy hair can be affected by certain medications prescribed to patients undergoing treatment for conditions such as heart problems, cancer, depression, arthritis and high blood pressure. This type of hair loss tends to be temporary.

Genetics

Female and male pattern baldness are common in people with very high levels of a certain male hormone. This is a hereditary problem, therefore if members of your close family have experienced hair loss and thinning, there is a high chance you may too.

Physical and emotional stress

Some people who have experienced an intense physical shock or emotional stress may start to experience hair thinning and hair loss. This is because trauma can shock the hair growth cycle and push more hair into the shedding phase rather than the growth phase. This type of hair loss is typically referred to as telogen effluvium and mainly affects the scalp.

Lack of protein

Hair is around 91% protein. Protein is made up of long amino acid chains called polypeptides, which are found in the cortex (middle part) of the hair. The amino acids consist of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur and are the building blocks of nails and skin. As a result, a diet lacking in protein can shut down hair growth and lead to lacklustre, weaker locks.

Nutrient deficiency

A lack of iron and zinc can lead to hair loss because these minerals are essential for helping hair follicles to grow. Therefore, people who are anaemic may find their hair becomes weaker and thinner.

How is hair loss treated?

Medical treatment

If you are worried about your hair loss and it is causing you distress, you should consider making an appointment with your GP to discuss possible treatment options. If you have a specific medical condition that is causing your hair loss, your GP will be able to make a diagnosis and recommend medications to resolve this.

In terms of common types of hair loss such as male and female pattern baldness, medications such as finasteride and minoxidil can be used for cosmetic reasons. However, these treatments don't work for everyone and will only show effects for as long as they are taken. There are surgical options for hair loss, but these can be expensive as they are not available on the NHS.

Healthy hair diet

Another option worth considering when tackling hair loss and hair thinning is nutrition. There is evidence to suggest that a diet rich in specific nutrients can strengthen new hair and help prevent hair loss and weakness. 

Studies that focus on the effects of diet on hair primarily involve factors such as protein malnutrition, eating disorders and starvation. While a specific diet for healthy hair may not be helpful for types of hair loss caused by medical conditions or genetics, it is considered valuable for those who have experienced hair loss as a result of nutritional deficiencies - such as low levels of protein. In these circumstances, a nutritionist can devise a healthy hair diet plan consisting of certain foods and that may be able to encourage stronger regrowth.

Eating for healthy hair

Eating a nutritionally balanced diet is key for good health, and when our bodies are healthy so is our hair. If you are experiencing hair loss and thinning, we have outlined a guide below on eating for healthy hair, and how to address any nutritional deficiencies, which may be connected with your type of hair loss.

Protein deficiency

As hair is made mostly of protein, eating a diet that contains sufficient levels of protein is considered essential for keeping hair healthy, strong and growing naturally. A deficiency can lead to thin, brittle hair or hair loss.

The top recommended protein-packed foods for healthy hair include:

  • Oily fish - Salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines and trout are packed with protein and good fats (omega-3 fatty acids) that contribute towards hair shine and strength, and help to prevent breakage. The NHS recommends eating at least two portions of oily fish a week.
  • Nuts - Offering a great range of nutritional benefits, nuts are one of the best foods for healthy hair. They offer a rich source of zinc and omega-3 fatty acids as well as protein, which can help to improve the overall look of hair (especially brazil nuts, almonds and walnuts).
  • Eggs - One of the best sources of protein you can find, eggs can boost the growth rate and strength of hair. Eggs also contain B-vitamins, which can boost hair shine.
  • Beans and lentils - Packed with protein, zinc and biotin - a vitamin B complex necessary for hair growth - beans and lentils should form an important part of a healthy hair diet.
  • Dairy products - Milk, yoghurt and cheese are rich in protein as well as calcium, which also contributes to hair growth and thickness. Aim to have around two to three portions of dairy a day.
  • Chicken - Containing high levels of protein as well as healthy hair nutrients zinc, iron and B vitamins. Zinc promotes the hair growth and repair and normalises the production of oil around the hair follicles. If your diet is deficient in zinc this can reduce the overall thickness of your hair and lead to hair loss.

Vitamins and minerals 

A healthy hair diet should consist of plenty of fruit and vegetables, which contain vitamins and minerals to help keep the scalp healthy and prevent the hair follicles from thinning. Spinach and other green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale and Swiss chard are good sources of iron, beta carotene, folate, and vitamin C which help keep hair follicles healthy and scalp oils circulating. 

Vitamin C is particularly beneficial for aiding circulation to the scalp and supporting the tiny blood vessels that feed the follicles. A lack of vitamin C can lead to hair breakage, so include the following in your diet to up your intake:  

  • citrus fruits (oranges, limes, lemons, grapefruit)
  • peppers
  • broccoli
  • sweet potatoes
  • kiwi
  • brussels sprouts.

The daily recommendation for adults is 40mg vitamin C per day, unless you are a smoker or under constant stress or training a lot, then you should double the intake. Please consult a health professional if you are considering taking a supplement, as taking more than 1000mg a day could lead to stomach pain, flatulence and diarrhoea. 

Iron deficiency

Iron helps make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. Without sufficient oxygen, the hair bulb may not be able to create new hair cells, therefore slowing the hair growth. Iron-rich foods that may in some cases help with the prevention of hair loss or thinning include:

  • red meat
  • nuts
  • beans
  • dried fruit
  • dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and watercress
  • wholegrains. 

Content reviewed by dietitian, Claudia Ehrlicher. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.

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