The state of our hair can be an indication of overall health, youthfulness, and even our physical attractiveness to others. But it isn't all about looks - hair serves a biological purpose, too. Like our skin, hair helps to regulate body temperature and keep our head warm. While emotional stress, genetics, pharmaceuticals, and hormonal issues affect our hair, diet does much to influence our hair's health, function and appearance.
Oily, cold water fish
When it comes to foods that pack a “pretty” punch, it's hard to beat these strong swimmers. Fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, pilchards, kipper, herring and eel are all high-quality sources of protein, iron and essential fatty acids omega-3 and 6. Those fatty acids are crucial to hair, skin and nail health, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, which writes that EFA's “help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system.” Other research shows that these oils also can help defeat dull, dry hair and scalp and improve luster and shine.
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Seeds, including Black Sesame, Flax, Sunflower, Pumpkin, and Chia
Feathers - like our hair, nails and skin - are composed of proteins and minerals, and a bird’s diet is naturally designed to ensure the healthy development of this important feature. While birdfare like bugs, worms and grubs, aren't so appealing, seeds are a tasteful way to add plant-based proteins and essential fatty acids - two nutritional components crucial for healthy hair. Jason Moscovitz, licensed acupuncturist, highly recommends black sesame seeds. “Black sesame seeds are believed to strengthen hair at the root, activate the scalp and encourage the proper metabolism of nutrients,” Moscovitz says. Sprinkle them on a salad, rice, yogurt, oatmeal or cereal, or add to pancakes, breads, trail mix. Or just have a handful alone.
Dark green vegetables
Most dark greens, such as broccoli, kale, spinach and Swiss chard are a tremendous source of vitamins A and iron. Vitamin A is essential for the production of natural oils that condition our hair and give it shine and elasticity. Dark green vegetables also provide iron and calcium, which are both essential to healthy hair.
When it comes to healthy hair, lately there's been a lot of buzz about vitamin B-7, or biotin - a nutrient found in egg yolk. Recent studies suggest that biotin works to protect the hair follicle and shaft to prevent breakage, therefore encouraging hair health and growth. Several studies by the University of Bologna and George Washington University School of Medicine have also shown that biotin increases nail and hair thickness and combats brittleness.
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Since hair follicles are made up of 50 to 100 different proteins, according to the University of Adelaide in Australia, the key to a plush pony tail may be a protein-covered plate. Legumes, or beans, are a great way to go, especially for vegetarians. Besides protein, most beans contain iron, zinc, and b-complex vitamins, including biotin (B7) and folate (B12). Some studies on animals have shown that supplementation with B-complex vitamins, specifically folate, can help postpone and maybe even reverse graying.
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Nuts are an excellent source of essential fatty acids, and most - especially Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds and walnuts - provide minerals such as selenium and zinc, which are important in the development of healthy tissues, particularly the scalp. A Turkish study found evidence that selenium supplementation can help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in patients with skin problems. Walnuts are especially great because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, and research has indicated that a zinc deficiency can lead to increased hair shedding.
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Lean animal protein, such as poultry
Without enough protein, our hair can be weak and brittle. Animal meats provide complete protein, meaning they provide all of the essential amino acids. Another big plus: The iron in poultry, unlike in Spinach, is very "bio-available," meaning it allows for better absorption and contributes to healthy blood circulation. But cooking technique matters - a lot. If that chicken is fried, the meat can raise your cholesterol level and contribute to poor circulation.
Grains, such as brown rice, whole wheat, barley, oats, quinoa, millet and spelt, provide a healthy helping of fiber and B vitamins, along with iron, zinc and silica. Silica, which is found in many whole grains (along with cucumbers), has been called the beauty mineral. A study by the University of Cincinnati’s College of Pharmacy found that fine-haired women who were given 10 mg of silica per day for nine months had thicker hair, increased elasticity and better tensile strength. Another study executed by the Department of Dermatology at the University of Bologna found that women taking silica over a 20-week period had less-brittle nails and hair and decreased skin roughness.
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Oysters and shellfish
These sea creatures of seduction, believed to be an aphrodisiac, may further bolster their Don Juan reputation by also improving the appearance of our hair, a proven feature of physical attraction. Oysters are a rich natural source of zinc, and oysters and most shellfish are also an excellent source of selenium, iron and protein, all crucial to hair health. When our body doesn't get enough zinc, it will "steal" it from our hair, leaving the hair brittle or even halting the growth process.
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Sea vegetables and blue-green algae, including spirulina and chlorella
The Department of Biology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that seaweeds are complete proteins, containing the full-spectrum of amino acids. Seaweeds also contain an ideal balance of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, other important factors in hair health. A Canadian Journal of Health & Nutrition says that the protein and omega profile in sea veggies "feed hair follicles to stimulate growth, while the iron and zinc maintain hair production.” Alginates in seaweeds are also effective in the detoxification process of our bodies, removing substances that can disrupt healthy cell growth and, therefore, hair growth. While seaweed is common in Asian diets, it’s not a staple for Americans. Simple ways to incorporate seaweed include adding it to rice, soups and salads.
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Turmeric, a spice derived from the east-Asian plant, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. When consumed, the spice stimulates the body’s natural steroids, corticosteroids, to reduce inflammation and swelling. According to Moscovitz, some hair loss can be associated with inflammatory conditions. Additionally, the MPB Research Labs in Korea conducted preliminary research that concluded a component in turmeric, curcumin, promotes hair growth by inhibiting a hormone that causes follicles to age and eventually die.
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While whole foods are always preferential, supplements can provide easier access to higher concentrations of certain hard-to-get nutrients. Nutritional deficiencies can reflect in our hair, so it’s a good idea to supplement your diet with a multi-vitamin, especially if you are vegetarian. To get more essential fatty acids, one can supplement with flaxseed, fish oils, or evening primrose. Certain B-complex supplements, especially those containing biotin, have been proven effective. If you are considering supplementation for hair health or overall health, always consult a registered dietician or doctor before beginning a daily regimen.
Foods used topically
Some foods can perform double duty, helping to restore hair health when used topically. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, massaging the scalp daily with ginger juice is recommended to stimulate circulation of the blood and encourage hair growth, according to Moscovitz. For greying hair, certain teas can refresh color in a natural way. You can soak hair in black teas for those with dark brown hair, try berry, hibiscus or rooibos teas for auburn or red hair, or chamomile for blondes. And egg protein masks are highly effective at helping brittle hair. Beat two eggs and then massage into dry hair, cover with a hair cap, leave on for 10 minutes, and rinse.