Has your hair seen better days? Hair loss, thinning, and breakage are among the top concerns of the women with whom I work. I’ll often hear my female clients lamenting that about the long, thick hair they used to have. I know exactly how this feels, because I’ve been there.
I also had long, thick hair until hypothyroidism and iron deficiency resulted in hair loss and breakage in my 30s. (you can see the pics and more about what happened here). I was devastated. My hair had been a main source of my identity for so long, and suddenly it changed texture and looked completely different: from thick and strong to thin and flat.
There are many reasons for hair loss or breakage, and I discuss those thoroughly in this post, but there are ways to grow longer, stronger hair from the inside out and by addressing topical hair care.
Factors Affecting Hair Growth
- Age: your hair begins to change texture and density after age 40, but following these tips can counteract the age challenge! Hair growth slows, and a natural loss of fatty acids and keratin proteins makes hair duller and more vulnerable to damage.
- Thyroid function: underfunctioning thyroid gland can result in brittle, breaking, thinning hair, and hair loss. Request blood work for a full thyroid panel from your doctor, including TSH, free T3, and free T4.
- Anemia: low iron levels can cause brittle hair and hair loss. Read more here.
- Perimenopause and changes in hormone levels can cause hair loss and thinning hair. As estrogen levels fall during perimenopause, the resulting imbalance between estrogen and testosterone can cause thinning hair.
- Stress/anxiety: Elevated stress hormones (cortisol) can shock hair follicles into their resting phase, causing hair to fall.
- Poor diet/nutrient deficiencies: deficiencies in B vitamins, A, zinc, minerals, and fatty acids can affect hair’s appearance. The health of your gut matters too, because you are not only what you eat, but what you absorb!
How to Grow Strong, Healthy Hair
You can combat thinning, breaking, and hair loss, no matter your age. Let’s discuss how you can strengthen your tresses from the inside out.
My first recommendation is to request blood work so you’ll know off the bat which hormone imbalances or deficiencies to address. In addition to a metabolic panel (called a CBC or complete blood count), ask for a hormone panel, including estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, and testosterone; a full thyroid panel; iron and ferritin; vitamins A, D, B6, and B12 and zinc. You can also order your own labwork with no doctor’s order from www.directlabs.com.
Start with what you’re eating. Your hair is sensitive to dietary changes and stress. Make sure you’re eating enough: so many of my female clients are undereating which puts the body into starvation and conservation mode. When your body perceives that there aren’t enough calories coming in, it thinks resources are scare, and it’s time to conserve nutrients to fuel the most crucial metabolic functions. Issues secondary to survival, such as skin health, hair growth, and fertility begin to suffer. Incidentally, this is why calorie restriction doesn’t work long term for weight loss: your body is trying to conserve what it can for survival rather than burn fat effectively. Your intake will depend on your age, weight, and activity level, but most women need at least 1,800 – 2,000 calories daily.
Make sure you’re getting enough protein. Hair is made primarily from keratin, a protein synthesized from amino acids. There are four key amino acids necessary to produce keratin: cysteine, lysine, arginine, and methionine. Your body breaks down the protein you eat into amino acids, so get at least a palm size with every meal. Collagen is important too (also great for skin), so consider adding collagen peptides to your smoothie, or mix with water and take daily. I use and recommend this brand, which is also rich in aminos and the more effective one I’ve used.
Zinc is also important for strong hair (and good skin). Zinc deficiency due to stress, poor diet, leaky gut, and use of medications (NSAIDs, acid blockers, antibiotics) will inhibit hair growth. Get some oysters and grass fed beef for extra zinc. Pumpkin seeds are a good vegetarian source. For protein, choose from cage free eggs, organic meats, wild fish (especially sardines and salmon for their fatty acids!), and protein smoothies. These will provide you with zinc also. I use this protein powder (dairy free), or if you can tolerate dairy, this cold processed whey protein is a great source of aminos.
Additionally, most animal proteins will provide you with the iron and B vitamins you need to prevent anemia.
Your body doesn’t make essential fatty acids: omega 3 and 6, which is why you need to get them from diet. They’re also essential to hair growth, nourishment, strength, and shine. Get plenty of fatty, cold water fish (such as salmon and sardines, mentioned above); avocado, olive oil, coconut oil; pumpkin seeds; walnuts. You can use flax oil and flaxseeds, but people of European descent often can’t convert the plant-based forms to usable omega 3 fatty acids, which is why it’s better to get them from fish. I recommend an omega 3-6-9 supplement.
Get plenty of thyroid-boosting foods and nutrients rich in zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin D. Here is my list. Oysters, eat em up!
Minerals of all types are important for hair growth (think zinc, iron, selenium, trace minerals). The easiest way to get minerals is from plant foods, so make the base of your diet veggies of all kinds, both leafy and starchy. Add in oxygenating booster foods such as spirulina and green juices. This will help circulation necessary to encourage follicle stimulation.
My top food picks for hair growth are
- Wild salmon and sardines
- Pumpkin seeds
- Red meat and lamb for the zinc and iron
- Collagen peptides and bone broth
- Brazil nuts & walnuts
- Sweet potatoes
- Vitamin C rich foods such as strawberries, kiwi, yellow & red peppers
- Oysters (a tin makes a great snack!)
- Egg yolks
- Bamboo tea is a super rich source of silica that makes hair grow like crazy
I also mentioned above that poor gut health can contribute to poor quality hair because you may not be absorbing all the nutrients from your diet if you have a leaky gut. If you have ongoing digestive symptoms, you may need to consider gut health and healing.
Supplement Protocol for Hair Regrowth
Along with the diet recommendations, there are a few supplements to help boost hair growth. You can do this protocol for 3 months along with the hair superfoods mentioned above.
- This is my all-time favorite supplement for hair growth. After using it for only 30 days, my hair was noticeably thicker and healthier, my nails were strong as nails, and my skin looked amazing too! It has a blend of the necessary aminos needed for hair growth, along with zinc, B vitamins, A&D, and other nutrients.
- Bamboo leaf tea is rich in silica needed for hair growth.
- If your thyroid is sluggish, I recommend this supplement to boost thyroid function.
- This iron supplement blood builder is great for both iron and vitamins B6 & 12.
- Add these collagen peptides to smoothies or green juice.
- I recommend this omega 3-6-9 supplement.
Hair Growth from the Outside
Now that you know how to counteract and address nutrient deficiencies and potential hormone imbalance for healthy hair, take a look at your products. If your hair’s texture is changing due to age or hormones, you need to switch up your routine. The time of year matters, too: hair exposed to hotter summer weather, pools, and salt water requires different care than winter hair that gets dry and frizzy.
When I say I’ve tried it all in regards to hair care, I mean it! I’ve done no poo (ditching shampoo altogether), low poo, and every product and serum and treatment under the sun, including expensive keratin treatments. I discuss my natural hair care regimen here. I have a few tips for natural hair care to promote growth.
- If your hair is brittle, weak, and damaged, step away from the chemical color! I got salon highlights for years before switching to boxed color, and all of it ruined my hair. I was even using the low chemical, ammonia free and more natural dyes, but they were still causing damage. Aging hair needs more TLC, so you may need to change coloring methods with age. To cover grays, try henna or use a plant-based color like Aveda (you can probably find an Aveda salon near you). If you have darker hair, you can use coffee to color it. Chamomile will brighten blonde. Learn more about natural hair color here.
- Watch the styling: when my hair was weak, I couldn’t tie it back in a bun because it caused breakage. Avoid high heat tools like blow dryers and straighteners.
- Don’t wash your hair every day if it’s weak, brittle, dry, and/or breaking. I only wash my hair once a week nowadays (using low poo cleansers and conditioners). I simply rinse it with water and “scrub” my scalp to remove dirt and stimulate blood flow (known as “water only” method).
- Check your products: using harsh cleansing agents strips the hair of natural oils. I avoid anything with sulfates and chemicals I can’t pronounce. I use the Shea moisture line now, mostly relying on the moisture retention shampoo and conditioner. Acure is a great line, too. I love their leave-in conditioner for my dry hair!
- Do deep conditioning masks once weekly. I use argan and coconut oils daily for conditioning. I make my own avocado and egg yolk masks. Be aware that you need to balance use of protein and moisture to prevent weak and brittle hair.
- Take care of your scalp! That’s where hair growth begins. I massage my scalp every time my hair is wet to stimulate growth. I also use apple cider vinegar rinses to normalize scalp pH and remove build-up (great for flakiness and dandruff too!).
- Depending on your hair type (oil, dry, frizzy, etc), you can use certain essential oils to promote growth. Rosemary, peppermint, and ylang ylang are great for moisture and growth.
- I don’t recommend the chemical treatments to stimulate growth, but if you’re looking for help with thickening, combatting breakage, or anti-aging, there are many more natural brands that don’t contain a laundry list of chemicals. I like the Caviar anti-aging line; Acure; shea moisture (mentioned above); aveda; and of course there are tons of options using natural oils, fruit (banana and avocado), yogurt, eggs, etc. I love this site for recs.
You can use food, supplements, and natural products to enhance hair growth and the health of your hair. Give yourself about 30 days to begin noticing changes. Follow these recs, and you’re on your way to healthy, shiny hair!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.