The food supplement alternative
Some nutritionists claim that certain vitamins, mostly of the B complex, like biotin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, and PABA; and some minerals like zinc, iron, sulfur, silica, and copper will have a beneficial effect on the hair. But when these nutritionists are pressed they will usually concede that these vitamins and minerals only (perhaps) slow down the graying process. And even this is just a vague possibility. I know of no reputable research that even hints that vitamins and minerals by themselves can grow hair on balding scalps.
Several more things about nutrition: Many studies seem to indicate that biotin taken orally enhances the integrity of the skin which, of course, includes the hair follicles. Other studies, questionable at best, suggest that zinc plus B6 (Zix) will have a beneficial effect on the hair. All nutritionists agree, though, that vitamins and minerals work synergistically - there is a cooperation between the nutrients. This means that you don't want to take too much of any single vitamin or mineral. For example, if you take too much of any one member of the B-complex, this might throw the whole complex out of balance. (Biotin is a member of the B-complex.)
If you wander down the aisles of the health food stores, you will see many herbal products on the shelves. I would love to believe what the labels on these products say. The brain, the eyes, the prostate, and the hair - all are promised restoration. Perhaps some of these products do have merit though. I've read many encouraging reports about saw palmetto, especially about the saw palmetto extract that contains 85 to 95 percent fatty acids and sterols - but only for the prostate, not for the hair.
A Japanese dermatologist, Masumi Inaba, theorized that an excess of saturated fat (mostly from red meat) in the diets of men predisposed to baldness might hasten the balding process. As I wrote on another page, certain areas of scalp tissue produce the enzyme 5-alpha reductase. The sebaceous (oil) glands adjacent to each follicle also produce this enzyme. As fat in the diet increases, there is an increased activity in these sebaceous glands. With this increased activity, there is an increased production of this enzyme which converts circulating testosterone into DHT. This in turn has an adverse effect on the follicles.
The best advice I have about diet is just to eat wholesome, nutritious meals. This certainly will not grow new hair, but it will keep you fit and healthy. Just to be safe, though, I mix some brewer's yeast in a glass of orange juice in the morning for the vitamin B-complex, trace minerals, and amino acids. (See my article on brewer's yeast.) I also take a teaspoonful of cod liver oil and eat a few walnuts for the omega-3 fatty acids, and I eat some raw sunflower seeds and pecans and avocados. The fats in these real food are healthful.
Try plain yogurt with the National Yogurt Association (NYA) seal on it. This means that this yogurt has “live and active cultures.” Avoid the yogurts whose labels say “made with Active Cultures.” These yogurts are probably heat-treated after fermentation. If this is the case, all the good bacteria are dead. Get Gary B. Huffnagle’s The Probiotics Revolution at the library to find out why this real food is good for the hair, skin, and general health.
New research indicates that you shouldn't eat milk and milk products like yogurt at the same time that you eat fruits and vegetables. The proteins (caseins) in milk have an affinity for the polyphenols in fruits, vegetables, tea, and coffee and reduce their bioavailability.
Some people feel more comfortable getting their nutrients from pills rather than from wholesome foods. Many nutritionists who are not associated with the pill companies believe that only 10% to perhaps 20% of the nutrients in pills are assimilated. There are also unidentified nutritional factors in real food that have not been synthesized yet and put into pills.
A nutrition guru who usually makes sense to me is Dr. Andrew Weil. He doesn't have much hair on top but that's OK. His new book is Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical Well-Being. His Web site always has good ideas about nutrition, exercise, and other health topics - Dr. Weil.com. Many nutrition gurus have eccentric diet plans that they urge you to follow, and they of course also urge you to buy their supplements and sign up for their liver detox programs. Dr. Weil is not into such eccentricity. His dietary recommendations are rational and balanced. Even though he sells supplements, he states categorically that you should get most of your nutrients from real food. Supplements should do just that - supplement what you might not be getting from the foods you eat.
Even though I attribute no miracles to supplements, I still order several on the Internet from companies like Puritan's Pride that have high quality control and low prices. I've been getting Brewer's Yeast Powder for over a dozen years. If there is a miracle food, this is it, at least as far as hair is concerned. I also get Black Currant Oil softgels for the GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), Ester-C 500 mg with bioflavonoids, vitamin E, and real cod liver oil, not the capsules. Don't go wild with supplements though.
New ideas on the essential fatty acids (EFAs)
An anonymous poster on the discussion forum asked me to tell him how the omega-3 fatty acids benefit hair. I don't know what level of explanation he wanted. I don't think he wanted a biochemical treatise on the subject. But the question is an excellent one because the essential fatty acids are very much in the news these days.
When I started studying nutrition the EFAs were called vitamin F. Some books that are now on sale at the health food stores, like the Nutrition Almanac, still use the term vitamin F.
Often when people have a borderline deficiency in the EFAs, they experience dry, brittle hair, excessive oiliness of the scalp, greasy hair, dandruff, itchiness - and hair loss. When experimental animals are totally deprived of the EFAs, they not only have hair loss but also an enlargement of the sebaceous glands. Enlarged sebaceous glands produce an excess of sebum. An excess of sebum often accompanies hair loss, but dermatologists do not think that one causes the other even though there is a positive correlation between excess sebum production and hair loss.
Many nutritionists now believe that the optimum ratio between the omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids in the diet is about three to one. In the usual American diet the ratio is probably ten to one, with extremely more omega-6 being consumed than omega-3. The omega-6 fatty acids, which include linoleic and gamma-linolenic acids, are found in unsaturated vegetable oils like soybean oil and peanut oil, in sunflower seeds, and some legumes. The omega-3 fatty acids, which include alpha-linolenic, docosahexaenoic acid, and eicosapentaenoic acid (don't try to pronounce these), are found in cold water fish like salmon and sardines, and fish oils which of course includes cod liver oil. Omega-3 is also in tuna, but because of the methyl mercury I stay away from this even though I like it a lot. I take black currant oil softgels and cod liver oil but not too much cod liver oil because of the high vitamin A content. I also eat some walnuts, high in omega-3, sprinkled on cereal. Flax seeds are also a good source of omega-3 but my recommendation is to stay away from flaxseed products. New research has demonstrated that the regular consumption of flax seed products will lower HDL, the "good" cholesterol.
It's best to take any supplement like black currant oil, or evening primrose oil with a meal because they need co-factors (other vitamins and minerals) for assimilation. I don't like to take these with a meal that contains a lot of saturated fat though. Saturated fat may interfere with the assimilation of healthful fatty acids and perhaps other nutrients too. Old age also interferes with the assimilation of these nutrients - stay away from old age.
My firm recommendation is to stay completely away from the trans-fatty acids. These are the vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated - margarine, cheap peanut butter (you'll read hydrogenated on the label), deep-fried food, especially French fries.
If you consume the bad fatty acids and even the good ones, it is wise to get sufficient antioxidants like vitamin E, beta carotene, and vitamin C. I take 200 international units of natural vitamin E (mixed tocopherols). These antioxidants mop up the free radicals created by the bad oils and keep the good ones fresh.
Another recommendation is to stay away from food products with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the ingredients list. This is hard to do, though, because this chemical is in almost every processed food - salad dressings, apple sauce, ice cream, cakes, cookies, pies, catsup, soft drinks, and the list goes on and on. The following few paragraphs are from the Supermarket Guru:
While many reports show that American consumption of white refined sugar has dropped over the past 20 years, it is mostly a result of the switch by food companies to HFCS, which according to USDA figures shows an increased our consumption of high fructose corn syrup by 250% over the last 15 years. Estimates are that we consume about 9% of our daily calories in the form of fructose. So why is High Fructose Corn Syrup being blamed? The problem appears to be the fructose not the corn syrup. Corn syrup sugar is primarily glucose, which our body burns as a source of immediate energy, is stored in muscles and our liver for later use, and releases insulin. Fructose, on the other hand, does not release or stimulate insulin. Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone that helps to metabolize our foods by pushing carbohydrates into our muscle cells to be used as energy, and allows carbohydrates to be stored in our liver for later use. It also stimulates production of another hormone, leptin, which helps to regulate our storage of body fat and increases our metabolism when needed. These two hormones keep our body fat regulated and tell us when we are satisfied. They send the message to our brain to stop eating.
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that men who consume very high levels of fructose elevated their triglyceride level by 32 percent. As triglycerides enter our blood stream, they make our cells resistant to insulin, making our body's fat burning and storage system even more sluggish.
Dr. Andrew Weil attributes the epidemic of obesity in the United States largely to the high fructose corn syrup found in processed foods.
Another perspective: Wheat Belly, a book by William Davis, MD, has over 2500 customer reviews on Amazon - most are five-star reviews. "A renowned cardiologist explains how eliminating wheat from our diets can prevent fat storage, shrink unsightly bulges, and reverse myriad health problems."
It's convincing but my suggesion is to read the book and decide for yourself.
Read a more in-depth article about my ideas on nutrition and hair - The Anti-inflammatory Diet.
Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by certain cells of the pancreas. This hormone helps your body store sugar (glucose) in the cells. The cells use this sugar for energy.
In some people the cells of the body, perhaps because of inflammation, are slow to respond to insulin or stop responding altogether. These people have what's called insulin resistance.
If you have insulin resistance, your pancreas will keep pouring insulin into your bloodstream, but this greater amount of insulin will not open the cell membrane gates so that sugar can enter. Sugar then builds up in the bloodstream.
Insulin resistance often creates other health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, high levels of cholesterol, and PCOS. There are also recent studies that indicate a positive correlation between hair loss and insulin resistance. (J. Lancet. 2000, 356:1165)
High Fat Diet
A high-fat diet may reduce the quantity of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) . This is a special type of protein that keeps the male hormone testosterone inactive until the body needs it. In other words, SHBG binds to testosterone so that the conversion to DHT will be difficult. The amount of hair loss is often correlated with the amount of free testosterone in the body and its conversion into DHT.
Vitamins, minerals, and especially antioxidants have synergistic interactions - the total benefit of the nutrients working together is greater than the sum of the individual nutrients. This is a good reason to eat natural foods where there is usually a balance among the nutrients. Pills might not have this balance. Perhaps that's why the nutrients in pills are not assimilated well.