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Your hair follicles are just as much a part of your body as your stomach is, and could therefore stand to benefit from a hair-growth diet rich in vitamin E, zinc, and other nutrients we’ll highlight.
Before we break down the key players in the nutritional defense against hair loss, it’s important to know our enemy.
To a degree, different types of hair loss require different solutions, some of them outside the realm of nutrition.
Hair Loss Type Matters
Hair loss (alopecia) can be temporary or permanent, aging-related or non-aging-related, and easy or hard to manage, depending on the type.
The impact of nutrition on hair loss is largely dependent on the type, since some forms of hair loss involve hormonal changes not mediated by diet.
Speaking of, let’s start with the most common form of hair loss: male-pattern and female-pattern baldness.
For no reasons related to a specific condition, injury, or wearing that ball cap too tight (traction alopecia), many otherwise healthy people just start balding at some point after puberty.
Androgenetic Alopecia is still not completely understood, but the most convincingly evidenced cause involves an increased sensitivity to a group of hormones known as androgens.
Genetic variations that increase the sensitivity to androgens like dihydrogen testosterone promote hair loss, though experts don’t understand the mechanism(s) at work.
Androgens are sometimes falsely labeled male sex hormones, but women have them too, which is why they can also suffer from this kind of hair loss.
The word “telogen” is in reference to one of the three phases of a hair’s life cycle, which include:
Anagen phase: Hair grows from the follicle for 2-6 years, reaching a length between 20-30 inches.
Catagen phase: The hair completes its growth and separates itself from the follicle, usually taking 2-3 weeks
Telogen phase: Hair “rests” as another one begins to grow from the same follicle, then falls out after 2-3 months.
Since hair is always (supposed to be) growing, losing 50 to 100 hairs a day is completely natural.
Those are rookie numbers in the case of telogen effluvium, however, where a person may lose up to 500 or so hairs a day.
This condition involves the premature graduation of anagen-phase hairs into the telogen phase, which increases the falling-to-growing ratio to the extent of visible hair loss.
Telogen effluvium is more situational than androgenetic alopecia, often resulting from thyroid hormone imbalances, medical procedures, illness, and nutritional deficiencies.
As such, it is often partially or fully reversible, but only if the underlying problem is addressed.
Like telogen effluvium, anagen effluvium involves prematurely cutting off a hair’s growth cycle—just one phase earlier.
In this case, hair falls out while it is in the longer growth phase, i.e., anagen.
This is the kind of hair loss most commonly associated with chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments, though it can also occur in the case of a fungal infection, autoimmune disease, and some other drugs.
It may sound like something that would be shouted amidst wand-waving duelists in a Harry Potter movie, but alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease.
Among the tissues targeted by this particular condition are the hair follicles, which essentially get shut down, ceasing all growth.
Hair loss can be patchy or complete, sometimes even affecting body hair.
The follicles are typically still alive, however, and hair regrowth is possible, though often sporadic and slow.
There’s no cure for alopecia areata, but topical treatments and injections may be able to stimulate regrowth.
These are just four of the more common hair loss conditions out of several dozen.
For a more complete breakdown of hair loss conditions, this NYU Langone Health article provides a succinct survey.
Nutrients for Hair Loss Prevention
A finding authored by Saudi dermatology experts offers a comprehensive look on “the role of vitamins and minerals in hair loss.”
As is the case with most natural and safe solutions, upping your content of the following nutrients won’t miraculously restore a full head of hair overnight, but it can significantly prolong and/or prevent hair loss.
This vitamin is actually more likely to cause hair loss in the case of overconsumption than with deficiency.
Fat-soluble vitamin A supports healthy vision, immunity, and cellular processes.
Several findings referenced within the Saudi study have correlated excessive vitamin A levels (RDA is 1300mcg, “tolerable upper intake level” is 3,200mcg) with thinning hair.
Most Americans are somewhere between the RDA and the upper intake level, since vitamin A is found in some meats, dairy products, cereal, and other popular foods.
If you feel you’re experiencing hair thinning already and/or if you think you might be getting too much vitamin A, here are some foods to dial back on:
- Sweet potato
- Pumpkin pie
- Ice cream
You may have already heard vitamin B referred to as a “complex” because it involves eight variations, four of which—biotin, riboflavin, folate, and B12—can promote hair loss when not adequately consumed.
Like vitamin A, most B vitamins are not deficient in the Western diet because they’re found in the following popular foods:
Check out these fact sheets by the National Institutes of Health for RDAs and food sources for each B vitamin.
Commonly available in food as ascorbic acid, vitamin C can significantly alleviate iron-deficiency-related hair loss because it enhances iron absorption into the intestines.
The direct correlation between vitamin C and hair loss is very weak, though it has been shown with more confidence to cause body hair loss.
Either way, the following sources of vitamin C are important to vegetarians especially, who are more vulnerable to iron-related hair loss:
- Citrus and some non-citrus fruits (oranges, cantaloupe, grapefruit, etc.)
- Some vegetables (broccoli, baked potato)
- Fortified foods: pasta, cereals, health drinks, etc
In addition to rickets—a bone disorder associated with severe vitamin D deficiency—hair loss is often observed.
This is because vitamin D acts on a receptor that regulates hair follicle development and health, as indicated by hair loss in genetically vitamin-D-resistant people.
Since humans can synthesize vitamin D from sunlight as well as food, most of us north of the Mason-Dixon line see a sizable drop in our “consumption” during the winter months.
Aside from a vitamin D supplement, these foods can help you climb your way back to the RDA, which is 10-20mcg depending on age:
- Salmon, mackerel, and other fish
- Cheese, eggs, beef liver
- Fortified foods (cereal, milk, juice, and many others)
Many post-operative joint replacement patients swear by vitamin E, and for good reason—when applied topically to scarred skin, it’s effective at preventing clotting and bacterial infections while increasing blood flow to injured areas.
As an antioxidant and immune booster, vitamin E can counteract the autoimmune component involved in certain types of hair loss, chiefly alopecia areata.
According to another National Institutes of Health fact sheet, the RDA of vitamin E varies between 15-19mg for adults and 4-15mg for infants and children.
Find it in these foods:
- Vegetable oils (but be cautious)
- Green vegetables
- Fortified foods: margarine, cereal, juice
Found in fish and meat, zinc has been strongly associated with hair loss in a number of findings, though some studies have offered contradictory evidence.
Even if it didn’t stave off hair loss, dietary intake of zinc is required because humans don’t produce it on their own.
It’s also important to note that overconsumption of cereal grain, per the Saudi study, can reduce zinc uptake in the body because a compound in the grain binds to the zinc and hampers absorption.
Like zinc, selenium is a trace element that we don’t produce internally.
It’s also heavily involved in the formation of dozens of proteins and some enzymes.
A UCLA finding demonstrated the “loss of pigmentation of the hair” in selenium-deficient patients.
You shouldn’t be hard-pressed to reach the 55-70mcg RDA if you get your share of seafood, meat, dairy, and grains.
Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency in the world.
Experts are still going back and forth on the validity of the connection between iron deficiency and hair loss, but the two go hand in hand more often than not, and even if they aren’t connected, iron deficiency is never good.
Menstruating or pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
Here are some foods to help you get your iron levels back on track:
- Beans (especially lentils and kidneys)
- Some fruit
Use These Methods to Boost Results
Finally, diet is not the only player in the exacerbation or prevention of hair loss.
Whatever you can do to identify and address sources of stress in your life will help, since chronic stress and hair loss are linked.
If you notice a bit of patchy hair loss and/or thinning, but your hairline is not receding at all, it might be a mechanical stressor.
This is known as traction alopecia, and can be easily reversed by loosening up that tight hat or hairdo.
Also, there are many health issues that can create imbalances in the hormones that regulate hair growth, so it’s always wise to consult a doctor if you think your hair loss is a symptom of some underlying problem.
In the 2020s and beyond, you have more than enough resources to combat hair loss of all types—you just need to take advantage of them.