Tell Me the Disease and I’ll Tell You the Cure
Health issues like thyroid disease, anemia, extreme or chronic stress and hormone imbalances can all cause hair loss, to name a few. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. To be effective, the treatment must be appropriate to the cause.
There is a significant amount of confusion, in particular, regarding the role of nutritional supplements (vitamins and minerals) in combatting hair loss. The perception of good nutrition as the ‘panacea for all ills’, whether arising from emotional, environmental or physical factors, needs to be put in perspective.
For some conditions vitamins can both fortify the body’s defences and act as an effective armoury in mounting an attack. There is a significant body of evidence, for example, indicating that nutritional supplements can support recovery from hair loss arising from anaemia.
For the most common type of hair loss however, which accounts for 95% of all cases, this is patently not the case. We must arm ourselves in other ways. Which weapon you choose depends on the enemy being faced.
When the Vitamins Don’t Work (cue music from ‘The Verve’)
So, can vitamins really stop hair loss, or even regrow your hair? In the case of pattern baldness* (androgenetic or androgenic alopecia), the answer is ‘no’.
There’s a large industry that thrives on you believing otherwise, so I’m going to say it again. This time louder. Nutritional supplements will neither stop hair loss nor regrow lost hair arising from (male or female) pattern baldness*. Given that pattern baldness accounts for 95% of all hair loss cases this is clearly an important distinction to make.
How do I know? Eight years of experience as a vitamin pill-popping machine, my friend. Fuelled by a lifetime bias for natural remedies. Ultimately tempered by a deep sense of disappointment when the very best money could buy failed to produce results.
That, and a bit of science.
Those looking for a quick, natural solution to a condition as complex as hair loss will obviously be disappointed by these statements. So was I.
Although severe vitamin deficiency and malnutrition can lead to loss of hair, it’s rare for a relatively healthy individual with decent eating habits to experience hair loss due to vitamin deficiency. Any hair loss that does result is unrelated to pattern baldness. If you’re in doubt, take a look at the many homeless men and women sporting full heads of hair.
Iron deficiency, with or without anaemia, has been linked to hair loss (as reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.) Introducing iron-rich foods into your diet, and / or taking an iron supplement may assist in reversing the resulting hair loss in this instance. No such ‘nutritional silver bullet’ exists for Androgenetic Alopecia.
As with any health issue, the first step is to understand the cause. Your doctor (or dermatologist) can run tests to diagnose the primary cause of your hair loss, e.g. anemia, thyroid, or hormone abnormalities. They can also recommend appropriate supplementation for the condition, if appropriate. See also the ‘Hair Loss Explained’ section on this site.
So, if nutritional supplements can neither stop nor reverse pattern baldness, is there any value in taking them at all if you’re suffering from this condition? Read on.
*Note: I do not address natural herbal supplements in this article. The brand recognition of some of these products and (claimed) mode of action differs sufficiently to warrant separate discussion.
As such, I’ve broken the discussion on nutritional supplements into two separate articles: i) vitamins and minerals (this article) and ii) herbs, particularly DHT blockers, in a future article. As you may know, DHT is currently the leading causal theory for hair loss.
Examples of natural DHT blockers include: Saw Palmetto, Pygeum, Fo-ti/Kashuu/Shou wu.
When the Vitamins Do Work
Nutritional supplements can help to improve overall hair health, appearance and rate of growth.
Vitamins and minerals are essential building blocks for the wellbeing of all the body’s functions, including our hair. Whilst a healthy diet is undoubtedly the best way to meet our nutritional needs there are times when supplements can be of value.
Nutritional supplementation can potentially assist with pattern baldness in two ways. Firstly, to aid in concealment by improving hair thickness and overall health. Improved thickness enables better manageability and increases your styling options. Secondly, supplements may augment results from primary pattern baldness treatments through enhanced rate of growth.
Nutrients commonly reported as capable of influencing hair growth include folic acid, biotin, (other) B complex vitamins, vitamin A, iron, zinc and proteins (clearly not a vitamin or mineral, but included for completeness):
Biotin (Vitamin B7): Appears to metabolise fatty acids which are an important growth factor in numerous processes in the body, including the hair. Biotin has also been said to play a role in preventing hair turning grey. Found in egg yolks, liver, milk, yeast and kidney. Works best when taken together with other B-complex vitamins.
Folic acid (Vitamin B9): A member of the B complex, folic acid is required for the production of red blood cells in the body and improved blood circulation, including to the scalp. Food sources include collard greens, peas, papaya and lentils.
Other B vitamins: Help the body to handle stress. Inositol, one of the B vitamins, may speed hair growth while B12 is a component of the hair itself. Vegetarians may be particularly deficient in B12 which is mainly found in meat and eggs. The B vitamins are best taken together and are frequently sold as a (super) B-complex.
Vitamin A (Retinol): Helps the scalp produce sebum which is essential for hair volume and fullness. Fish, egg yolks, organ meats (e.g. liver) are all good sources. Dark green, yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables contain large amounts of beta-carotene which the body turns into vitamin A.
Vitamin C: Vital for the production of collagen, an essential building block of a hair strand. Lack of collagen can cause noticeable hair damage. Vitamin C also helps the body absorb iron. The human body does not make its own vitamin C, so food or supplement sources are required, such as citrus fruits, red sweet peppers and mango.
Vitamin D: Called the sunshine vitamin, is an essential fatty acid that aids in bone growth and calcium absorption. Taking vitamin D helps healthy hair growth by working with calcium, an important dietary need for growth and strength. A lack of vitamin D may result in dry, easily damaged hair.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E improves blood circulation to the scalp by increasing the uptake of oxygen. It’s also an important antioxidant that helps fight free radical damage. Rich sources of vitamin E include almonds, corn oil and cereals.
Zinc: Zinc plays a vital part in many bodily processes and functions such as in cell reproduction, hormonal balance, proper absorption of vitamins and in protein synthesis. All these processes are vital for proper hair growth. Wheat germ is one of the best known sources of Zinc. Other sources are brewer’s yeast, pumpkin seeds, oysters and mussels, shrimps and egg yolks. Zinc is also said to stop hair turning grey.
Protein: Protein is a basic ingredient in many hair shampoos and conditioners and is also the major ingredient of hair itself, which is at least ninety per cent protein. Whilst this should not necessarily be the main ingredient in your diet, its importance should not be ignored.
The above list is far from exhaustive. Luckily, there is no shortage of sites describing how vitamins and minerals can assist in supporting hair health.
Water-soluble vitamins can be taken in significantly higher doses than the recommended dosage without adverse reactions, since they’re not stored in the body. That said, it is always possible to go too far. Mega-doses of some water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C, may be toxic to some people. Reducing the dosage will normally reverse any side effects.
Fat-soluble vitamins can be toxic at higher than recommended doses, since they can accumulate in the body for significant periods of time. In particular, overloading on vitamin A or D can be dangerous. Excess vitamin A can even result in temporary hair loss.
Beware any vitamin and mineral supplement which claims it can help you stop or reverse pattern baldness. Products that promote improved hair quality, however, may be of value if you’re not getting enough nutrients from your diet.
If you do decide to supplement to enhance your hair’s appearance I suggest you critically assess results after two to three months. Supplements are not cheap, and observable benefits can be marginal in many cases.
As far as my experience is concerned, supplements did nothing to improve the appearance of the hair I hadn’t lost. They may, however, have supported other primary treatments once I started my successful treatment plan. That said, I no longer take any form of natural supplements for my hair and it still looks pretty damn good. Even if I do say so myself!
Be clear on your reasons for taking nutritional supplements: hair care or hair loss prevention / regrowth. Vitamin and mineral supplementation will not address hair loss resulting from pattern baldness.
If you do wish to try supplements to improve the appearance of your hair, or to augment other primary hair loss treatments, be sure to monitor your results for efficacy … and use only good quality supplements.
I’ve found the Solgar brand to be one of the best. They’ve been around since 1947 and manufacture their products to the highest standards. You can purchase solgar vitamins here.
To see what worked for me go here.