We spike, tease, color and curl it. We heat, gel, straighten and spray it. We fret and fume over it, spend pots of money on it and weep when we lose it. It’s our crowning glory, a vital sign of health, youth and beauty. It’s our hair, and we want it to look great.
This year, consumers worldwide will spend $38 billion to tend to their hair, using products that claim to include vitamins, fruit juices and herbal oils. Natural products like rosemary, almond oil, honey, avocado, kiwi and lemongrass often are listed as ingredients in shampoos and conditioners. These products sound good enough to eat, but is it really possible to “feed” our hair from the top down?
All in the Diet
Clinical nutritional consultant and co-author of The Food Doctor (Collins & Brown, 1999), Vicki Edgson, argues that the key to healthy hair is to “Feed it properly from the inside.” Hair is made of a stretchy protein called keratin, so maintaining a diet with adequate protein — from fish, plant sources, chicken and eggs — is important. The same nutrients that make good skin, nails, bones and connective tissue benefit hair health. So if you want healthy hair, eat wisely, Edgson advises.
Your Hair’s Life Cycle
Over-the-counter conditioners may make hair feel and look better by smoothing down the shingle-like cuticle, which protects the hair shaft. But by the time hair is visible at the scalp level, it is no longer alive and is not able to absorb nutrients. Living cells reside on and beneath the scalp, where there are some 84,000 to 145,000 hair follicles. Each follicle holds an individual hair that is embedded in the skin by a root at its base, which benefits from a blood supply rich in amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
Every hair has a life cycle, when it is actively growing (anagen phase) and resting (telogen phase). Hair grows about one half inch per month, or six inches in one year. Hair also routinely falls out. It is perfectly normal to lose from 50 to 100 hairs per day. But more significant hair loss may be due to environmental pollution, overmedication, stress, hormonal changes or poor diet. The lack of iron has been linked to excessive hair shedding, according to a 2002 report in Clinical and Experimental Dermatology. But the author of the report also cites excessive use of supplements as a possible factor contributing to hair loss.
Herbal Help for Absentee Hair
Aside from a good diet, adequate in protein and iron, the topical use of essential oils of certain herbs has been shown to reverse hair loss. In a 1998 Archives of Dermatology study, medical doctor Isabelle C. Hay successfully treated 43 patients with alopecia areata (sudden hair loss) using the essential oils of thyme, lavender, rosemary and cedarwood, in carrier oils of jojoba and grapeseed oils. The subjects were given two-minute scalp massages daily with the oils, and a control group of 43 received the daily scalp massages with the carrier oils only. At the end of the seven-month trial, 19 people in the essential oil group had re-grown hair, as opposed to six in the control group.
Hay warns that pregnant women or individuals with high blood pressure or epilepsy should not try this at home. Hair loss can be caused by stress, hormonal changes, deficient diet, environmental pollution and disease. Check with your doctor and dermatologist if you’re losing your hair.
Most hair trouble is not as worrisome as hair loss, say aromatherapists Judith White and Karen Downes. Hair disrepair (or the poor appearance and condition of hair) is, for most of us, due to loss of moisture from perms, coloring, setting, bleaching, frequent washing or drying. They recommend a weekly herbal treatment, using 5 drops of geranium and 10 drops each of sandalwood and lavender essential oils. Add the mixture into 12/3 ounces of cold-pressed vegetable, nut or seed oil (sweet almond oil is a good choice). Apply to dry hair and leave on for 20 minutes with your hair wrapped in a towel or paper wrapper to conserve heat and help penetration. Remove by adding shampoo and working in before water is added. Wash thoroughly.
Nancy Allison is a freelance writer currently living in Germany.