Women spend an average of 40 minutes per day (that’s 10 full days per year!) caring for our hair–shampooing, conditioning, drying, styling, re-styling. Plus any extra time spent thinking about it or buying specialized supplies and tools for it.
But how many of us really know what hair is made of, why we have it, and what our locks have to do with our health?
A brief biological background…
Hair is a protein filament made of keratin. Although the strand we see is dead protein, the base is connected to the body’s blood supply, which is how it gets nutrients for growth. The living part of the hair follicle reproduces more quickly than any other cell in the body. As new cells are added, older cells are pushed out–what we then see as “growth.”
Humans are funny creatures in that we’ve evolved extensive hair loss on most of our body, but not our heads. Why? Hair on the head is both insulating and cooling (sweat evaporates from wet hair), helping to regulate the temperature of the brain. And because we walk upright it’s also important UV protection for the body.
Hair is an indicator of health
Hair is also a strong indicator of the health of the body on the inside. (Ever notice that you naturally associate people with long, full, shiny hair as being healthy overall?)
Even so, many of us have concerns about our hair health that we don’t naturally relate to the rest of our health. (It’s too oily and needs to be shampooed daily. Or it’s dry and brittle and breaking at the ends. Or both. It’s thinning, or overly frizzy, or doesn’t seem to grow. Anything sound familiar?)
Before turning to special hair products to “fix” these concerns, take a look at possible underlying issues–a lot of hair health is rooted in basic health.
How to improve hair health naturally:
1. Eat a balanced and healthy diet. Proper nutrition and healthy digestion (no leaky gut!) are critical for the health of any body system. Of course, the same goes for improving hair health. If you have a particular concern with your hair or skin, your best bet is to first work to improve your diet and gut health.
In addition to plenty of veggies and other whole, unprocessed foods, a balanced diet includes lots of healthy fats, which are important for hair health and shine.
2. Consume more protein and gelatin. Protein is essential for building (aka “growing”) hair. To optimize hair health, make a special effort to ensure you’re getting enough protein.
To borrow from a previous post: The average female adult needs about 60-90 grams of protein per day (of course with variation based on body size and level of activity–try this protein calculator to estimate how much you need). A reasonable estimate is 0.7-1 grams of protein for every pound of body weight–if you’re not very active, aim for the lower end, and if you’re doing a lot of strength training or recovering from an injury, aim for the higher end.
Gelatin is also a great source of protein, and is helpful for growing and strengthening hair. The Gelatin post has more details on the health benefits of gelatin and some starter recipe ideas.
3. Get the vitamins that promote hair growth. Vitamin C helps to produce collagen, which is necessary for healthy hair and skin. Vitamin C is easily found in foods and multi-vitamins. Biotin (B7) and other B vitamins are also known to be important for hair growth. Many people have found Biotin supplements to be effective in improving hair health, promoting growth, and preventing hair loss.
A basic and affordable Biotin supplement:
A Biotin complex specifically for hair growth:
**Of course, before starting supplementation you should talk to your doctor, nutritionist, or someone who can advise on your specific situation.
4. Develop a healthy hair care routine. The way you treat your hair also impacts its overall health. Some general tips for treating it nicely:
- Cut back on shampoo, which dries out hair and strips it of its healthy natural oils. Aim to shampoo every 2-3 days. (If this scares you, don’t worry–your hair will respond! When oils are not being washed away as frequently, the glands will begin to produce less.)
- Use a natural shampoo. Many shampoos contain toxic ingredients (sodium laurel sulfate, parabens, and the like) linked to skin irritation, cancer, and even birth defects. Not surprisingly, these ingredients can also be very drying and damaging to hair. So ditch the standard drugstore shampoo for a natural alternative. You can use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to search for product safety.
- Brush your hair regularly. The old wives’ tale that you should “brush your hair 100 times a night” is actually quite beneficial for hair health–it helps distribute natural oils from your scalp, making hair shinier, more manageable, and less prone to breakage.
- Use a boar bristle hairbrush, which has densely packed bristles to help move natural oils from your scalp down the hair shaft.
- Be gentle. Don’t brush wet hair (it’s weaker than dry hair because of some chemical bond stuff goin’ on with the water molecules)–use your fingers or a wide-tooth comb.
- Limit use of heat styling and strong-hold hair products, which damage hair.
5. If needed, treat your hair to some extra TLC.
- For dry hair prone to breakage: Use a leave-in conditioner to lock in moisture, especially at the ends, which tend to be more damaged. You could invest in a store-bought option, or just use a nourishing oil like almond or coconut. Simply rub a pea-sized (or smaller) amount of oil together in your hands, work into the ends of damp hair, and carry on as usual.
- For dry hair prone to frizz: Hot oil treatments can improve hair health and increase shine (while also decreasing breakage!). Heat about 1/4 cup of oil (olive, coconut, almond, etc.) until it’s warm to the touch but not too hot to handle with your hands. Massage into your hair from root to tip. Bring all your hair to the top of your head, put on a shower cap, and wrap in a towel–this traps the heat, allowing the oils to do their work. Let sit for 30 minutes to a couple hours. Wash as usual, keeping in mind you may need to wash twice to remove all the oil.
- For hair that doesn’t seem to grow: Some sources recommend that massaging a nourishing oil into your scalp before washing can help to stimulate hair follicles, and thus hair growth. Try coconut, almond, or jojoba oils.