Inflammation causes many of the problems associated with bad hair and bad skin . Most of this inflammation is subclinical - the kind that can be seen only with a microscope. In this article I'm going to make many suggestions about what foods and supplements reduce the possibility of cellular, tissue, and even systemic inflammation. I'm also going to suggest what foods and eating patterns increase the possibility for this inflammation to occur.
What mainly determines if our diet is either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory are wild swings in blood sugar. These rapid rises in blood sugar trigger an insulin response in the body. This insulin response is to a large extent what causes an inflammatory response.
Most of the foods we eat are converted into sugar (glucose), but different foods are converted into sugar at different rates. Foods that are converted into sugar fast can be considered as pro-inflammatory. These foods, which I'll discuss in detail, often cause all kinds of trouble if they make up a large part of one's regular diet.
The kinds of trouble they cause are hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes type 2, insulin resistance, cholesterol problems, and central obesity (visceral fat). This group of physical disorders is often referred to as the metabolic syndrome or syndrome X. Another indication of the metabolic syndrome is a high C-reactive protein level. Here's what Dr. Andrew Weil says about this marker for systemic inflammation:
Cardiovascular disease remains one of the biggest health threats to Americans. For years, LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels were the measuring stick for cardiovascular risk, but recent studies have indicated that elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels - which measure inflammation - may be a better indicator of one's risk for heart attack and stroke.
What can you do to lower your CRP? It sounds familiar: If you reduce your intake of saturated fats, exercise regularly, eat an anti-inflammatory diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables, stop smoking, and lose excess weight, your CRP levels will decrease naturally, along with your risk of heart disease and numerous other illnesses."
My opinion is that Dr. Weil's recommendations will have a positive effect on hair and skin health along with keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy.
The foods that are converted into sugar fast are all high on the glycemic index. This index is an arbitrary scale that rates foods from 0 to 100. Water is rated 0; table sugar is rated 100. As a rule, foods rated quite a bit above 50 should be avoided because they are pro-inflammatory. These foods include white potatoes, white bread, white rice, processed cereals, pasta, dried fruit, fruit juices, honey, and of course soda drinks, cakes, cookies, and pies. All these foods cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. This in turn triggers a release of insulin. The result is inflammation taking place in all the cells of the body.
But in addition to being concerned about the glycemic index, you have to think about the glycemic load too. The glycemic load is determined by how much food is eaten at a given time. If too much food, even food low on the glycemic index, is eaten at one time, there will be a rapid rise in blood sugar. Many nutritionists recommend small meals even if you have to eat more than three times a day. Small meals stabilize blood sugar and therefore keep inflammation in check; super-large meals have the opposite effect.
Even though most fatty foods rate low on the glycemic index, certain "bad" fats are known to create a pro-inflammatory state. This is because different types of fats produce different types of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are extremely active biological substances produced in the body by using unsaturated fatty acids. The bad fats play a role in the synthesis of the pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. These fats include polyunsaturated oils, partially hydrogenated fats, and trans-fatty acids (fats in deep-fried foods). It's hard to avoid these fats if you eat a lot of processed foods. I avoid corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, margarine, lard, and the like. I use mostly extra-virgin olive oil that is rich in omega-9. This fatty acid works in concert with omega-3, producing benefits in the body.
The omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in cold-water fish like sardines, salmon, and tuna, are important in the production of the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Fish oils and cod liver oil are also high in this nutrient if you are concerned about the possibility of methyl mercury in salmon and tuna, or just don't like the taste of fish. Other good sources of omega-3 are walnuts, flax seed powder, sunflower seeds, and almonds. My recommendation, though, is to stay away from flax seed products because new research has indicated that the regular consumption of these products can lower HDL, the good cholesterol.
Before I get into the intriguing material about some great anti-inflammatory foods, I'd like to encourage everyone to drink a lot of pure water. Six to ten glasses each day exert a strong anti-inflammatory effect because the water gets rid of toxins that might otherwise build up in the body. I drink spring water that I get at a grocery store near me. The water out of the tap is not a choice I would make because there are too many unhealthful chemicals in it. If you drink sufficient pure water each day, you'll notice that your skin will start to look a lot better - even acne might start to disappear. This is an indication of the anti-inflammatory process at work.
A list of anti-inflammatory foods
If you have been looking at my Discussion Forum regularly, you would have seen many positive messages about all the foods that are listed below. There is certainly no one food that magically stabilizes hair loss or grows new hair, but a diet rich in all or most of these foods might create the healthy anti-inflammatory state conducive to productive hair follicles. I'm going to list these foods under the major phytochemical groups of which they are a part.
Omega-3 fatty acids - Most sea foods like the ones I mentioned above along with fish oils are rich in this essential fatty acid. The vegetarian sources include flaxseed powder, walnuts, sesame and canola oil. All raw nuts also contain at least some omega-3 also.
Quercetin - This is an anti-inflammatory phytochemical of the flavonoid family. It is found in red grapes, onions, broccoli, garlic, and apples. Green apples, especially the skins, are known to have a positive effect in promoting the growth of new hair according to a large Japanese study.
Resveratrol - This is another phytochemical, very much in the news lately because of it benefit to the heart and blood vessels. It is found in red wine and red grapes. Supplement dealers are now selling "extract" of resveratrol, but why not go for the real thing - red wine in moderation and red grapes. There is that lure of taking a magic pill though.
Polyphenols - These are other anti-inflammatory phytochemicals found in highly colored berries like blueberries and blackberries. They are also rich in anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid that is protective of hair follicles. Cranberry juice if it's 100% is also full of these phytochemicals, but stay away from the cranberry "drinks" and other fruit drinks too. These are usually nothing but sugar, water, synthetic flavor, and some coloring - very high on the glycemic index. 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.
Antioxidants - These protect the body from free-radical damage, the chain-reaction that erodes cell membranes (cell walls) throughout the body. Some of the foods I eat for their antioxidant effects are green and red peppers, loaded with vitamin C; canned tomatoes, rich in lycopene (protects against prostate problems too); and all kinds of dark leafy greens like spinach. If you make salads from these greens, stay away from most of the salad dressings you'll find at the stores. Almost 95% of them are loaded with high fructose corn syrup. (Paul Newman's salad dressings are the only ones I found without HFCS.) This chemical is a disaster making people fat around the middle.
Oleic acid - This contains the omega-9 fatty acid that helps the omega-3 function more efficiently. I use extra-virgin olive oil, high in omega-9, for everything, even putting a few drops on whole wheat toast. This is the best pro-inflammatory oil. Use it instead of the polyunsaturated oils like safflower, corn, and soybean.
Curcumin - Turmeric powder contains curcumin, an extremely powerful anti-inflammatory spice. I get it at Whole Foods and use it in soups and casseroles. I'm not enthusiastic about the taste of this spice though. (Turmeric powder can stain your teeth yellow.)
Alpha-lipoic acid - This antioxidant is found in most meats and vegetables and is easily absorbed, but some researchers like Dr. Lester Packer of UC Berkeley suggest taking an alpha-lipoic acid supplement. Juvenon, which also contains acetyl-L carnitine, is an excellent although expensive alpha-lipoic acid supplement, according to Dr. Andrew Weil.
All the foods mentioned in the anti-inflammatory list are low on the glycemic index. They will not cause a pro-inflammatory spike in your blood sugar. And all these foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients that work synergistically to produce optimum health.
When you walk down the aisle of a health food store, you'll see all kinds of products (pills, softgels, tablets, and so forth) that provide all the nutrients that I described in this article. My preference, though, is to get these nutrients from real foods if you can for three reasons: (1) nutrients from real foods are usually assimilated faster than they are from supplements, (2) in real foods there are always many nutrients and phytochemicals working together, and (3) in real foods there are probably unidentified nutritional factors that haven't been discovered or synthesized yet.
Many people have asked me in messages on my discussion forum and in emails what foods and supplements I think are the most important for hair health - both for promoting hair growth and preventing premature gray hair. Here's the list of what I use with the most important ones at the top:
- Brewer's yeast from Puritan's Pride
- Cod liver oil also (only a teaspoon daily - plain flavor, but mint is more tasty.)
- Extra-Virgin Olive oil (get a good brand)
- Walnuts (get them from Aldi if you can)
- Broccoli (steamed)
- Black currant oil
- Garlic (the real stuff)
- Turmeric from Whole Foods
- Liver (perhaps once a month for the iron and trace minerals)
- Yogurt (Plain yogurt is best with both live and active cultures; most flavored yogurts are sweetened with HFCS.)
- Green apples (I make applesauce and include the skins.)
A Breakfast Suggestion
I think breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A good breakfast will get you off to a good start. Without trying to come off here as a guru with the final word on nutrition, I'd like to tell you what I often have for breakfast:
Oatmeal with some toasted wheat germ mixed in. I put some walnuts and blueberries on top of this along with milk. It tastes delicious. I always like good-tasting foods. Even if I know that something is good for me, I won't eat it if it tastes bad. The only exceptions I make here are cod liver oil and turmeric. These don't taste too horrible though.
If readers of this article have any suggestions about hair-healthy foods, post them on my discussion forum. If a suggestion seems rational I'll post it on this page; if it's not rational we'll just forget it.
I just got a suggestion from jpj (January 3, 2007) who has posted many messages on the discussion forum. In an email, he wrote, "I think if you listed the inflammatory cytokines and the foods and supplements that counteract them, the readers would be more likely to make a list of them and formulate their eating habits or supplementation habits to try and inhibit each one."
Cytokines are regulatory proteins such as lymphokines and interleukins that are released by the immune system. Some of these intercellular messengers are important for general health, but some can have a negative effect on the hair follicles, like shortening the growing stage of the hair cycle. Anyway, here is a list of foods that may inhibit specific cytokines:
Green apples and blueberries containing high amounts of proanthocyanidins may inhibit both TGF-beta (Transforming Growth Factor) and PKC (Protein Kinase C).
Cucumbers, oatmeal, and brewer's yeast, all high in silica may restrict IL-1, which is a hair growth inhibitor.
Fish oil including cod liver oil may inhibit TNF-alpha.
According to jpj, the proanthocyanidins in barley also inhibit TGF-beta. This cereal seed also contains some azelaic acid.
Here's another article on this website about how Nutrition may contribute to healthy hair.