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Nutrient Deficiencies Responsible for Hair Loss

Medically reviewed by 
Nutrient Deficiencies Responsible for Hair Loss

Have you ever run a brush through your hair and wondered, "Is too much hair coming out?"

Losing more than 100 hairs daily is considered excessive hair loss, or alopecia. Hair loss casts a shadow on self-confidence, necessitating prompt intervention. While genetics and lifestyle often play a role, the health of your hair may hinge on an unseen factor: nutrient deficiencies.

Like any other tissue, hair thrives on a balanced supply of vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Unfortunately, when these essential building blocks fall short, the consequences can manifest in thinning strands and unwelcome balding. This article delves into the nutritional impact on hair health, exploring how deficiencies in specific nutrients can contribute to hair loss and outlining strategies to address them.


Understanding Hair Loss

The hair growth cycle has three main phases: anagen, catagen, and telogen. Individual hair follicles cycle independently, with each follicle undergoing 10-30 cycles in a lifetime. The anagen phase is the active growth phase where hair follicles produce new hair cells; this phase typically lasts between two to seven years and determines the length of the hair. Approximately 90% of hair follicles are in this phase under normal circumstances. The catagen phase is a transitional phase where hair growth stops and the outer root sheath shrinks and attaches to the hair root. This phase lasts for two to three weeks. The telogen phase is the resting phase where the hair follicle is dormant; old hairs are shed to make way for new hair growth. This phase lasts around three to four months. Approximately 10-15% of hair follicles are in this phase at any given time. 

Various factors can disrupt the hair growth cycle, leading to hair loss. Hereditary factors play a significant role in pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia, the most common cause of hair loss in both men and women. Fluctuations in hormone levels, such as during pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, or thyroid disorders, can contribute to hair loss. Certain medical conditions, such as alopecia areata, other autoimmune diseases, scalp infections (such as ringworm), and trichotillomania, can disrupt the hair growth cycle. Inadequate intake of vitamins, minerals, and protein can also affect hair growth and lead to hair loss.

Temporary hair loss may occur due to stress, medications, certain hairstyles, or sudden weight loss. However, identifying underlying causes is crucial as some forms of hair loss may be permanent, requiring specialized treatment. Permanent hair loss typically occurs in conditions like scarring alopecia, where hair follicles are irreversibly damaged.

Key Nutrients Involved in Hair Health

Beyond genetics and lifestyle, unlocking healthy hair growth hinges on understanding hair-specific nutrition. This section delves into the science behind nutritional aspects that promote optimal hair health and the potential impacts of specific nutrient deficiencies.

Iron Deficiency and Hair Loss

Iron plays a central role in promoting healthy hair growth through multiple mechanisms. It's essential for oxygen delivery to hair follicles, fueling the energy-intensive cell division and proliferation processes crucial for hair production. Additionally, iron acts as a cofactor for enzymes involved in DNA and hair keratin (the protein that forms the structural backbone of hair strands) synthesis.

When iron stores dip below optimal levels, these processes get compromised. Oxygen deprivation in hair follicles leads to stunted growth and weakened hair shafts, making them prone to breakage. Iron deficiency can push hair follicles into the telogen hair growth phase; when more hair follicles enter this resting phase simultaneously, hair falls out but doesn't grow back in. Moreover, impaired keratin synthesis produces thinner, less resilient hair, contributing to overall hair loss. (35, 47

Diagnosing iron deficiency hair loss involves a two-pronged approach:

  1. Clinical evaluation includes discussing your medical history, dietary habits, and hair loss pattern. Additionally, visible signs like pale skin, brittle nails, and fatigue can further support the suspicion.
  2. Blood tests: Measuring serum ferritin levels is the primary diagnostic tool for iron deficiency. The Iron + Total Iron Binding Capacity panel and a complete blood count (CBC) by Access Med Labs provide a more comprehensive picture of iron status.

Research suggests that the optimal ferritin level for promoting hair growth might be higher than the standard cut-off for diagnosing iron-deficiency anemia (1, 33).

Treatment for iron deficiency hair loss requires correcting the underlying iron deficiency. This can be achieved through increasing iron-rich foods like red meat, poultry, lentils, and leafy greens. Pairing these foods with vitamin C sources like citrus fruits or bell peppers is important to enhance iron absorption. In cases where dietary changes are insufficient in optimizing serum iron levels, iron supplements and/or intravenous infusions prescribed by a healthcare professional are recommended. Consulting a healthcare professional is crucial before starting any iron supplementation, as excessive iron intake can have harmful consequences. (4

Zinc Deficiency and Its Impact on Hair

Zinc is a cofactor for numerous enzymes involved in protein synthesis. Additionally, zinc supports cell division and DNA replication, which is crucial for hair follicle growth and repair. Moreover, its antioxidant properties shield hair cells from inflammatory damage, preventing premature aging and graying. Suboptimal and deficient zinc levels disrupt protein synthesis and cell division, translating to hair loss, slow growth, brittle hair, and a dry scalp.

In a study assessing serum zinc levels in patients with and without hair loss, researchers noted significantly lower zinc levels among patients exhibiting all types of hair loss compared to healthy controls. Research has also shown that hair loss is reversible in patients with telogen effluvium (excessive hair shedding) and alopecia areata when zinc deficiency is reversed.

Measuring serum zinc levels through a blood test can provide a general picture of zinc status. Ordering RBC zinc may be a more accurate marker when chronic zinc deficiency is suspected. Hair tissue analysis, such as the Hair Elements test by Doctor's Data, can offer a more accurate reflection of zinc availability within the follicles. 

Increasing zinc intake starts with dietary modifications. Zinc-rich foods include oysters, red meat, poultry, lentils, and pumpkin seeds. Plant-based sources of zinc contain phytates that bind zinc and limit its absorption. Zinc-containing supplements are also an option for treating zinc deficiencies. The citrate and gluconate forms of supplemental zinc have the highest absorption rates.

The Importance of Vitamins for Hair Health

Deficiencies in specific vitamins can contribute to hair loss, highlighting the importance of balanced nutrition. Let's delve into the roles of vitamins A, D, E, and B-complex in hair health:

Vitamin A, obtained from dietary sources in the form of retinoids or carotenoids, undergoes conversion into active compounds such as retinoic acid within the body. Retinoic acid, a biologically active form of vitamin A, regulates gene expression and cellular differentiation in hair follicles. It influences metabolic processes by modulating the production of proteins essential for follicular function. Proper metabolic activity within the hair follicles is required for synthesizing structural components of hair strands, like keratin. The impact of vitamin A on skin and hair is dose-dependent, with both deficiency and excess leading to deleterious effects such as follicular hyperkeratosis during deficiency and hair loss with reduced sebaceous gland function during excess consumption. (49

Vitamin D receptors are present in hair follicles, indicating the importance of vitamin D for signaling pathways of growth and differentiation of hair follicles. Many studies have shown an inverse relationship between serum vitamin D levels and both non-scarring and scarring alopecias. (39) Therefore, ensuring an adequate intake of vitamin D through exposure to sunlight, dietary sources, or supplements should be considered as a natural intervention for maintaining healthy hair follicles and preventing potential hair loss associated with vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant and shields hair cells from free radical damage that can weaken hair follicles and contribute to premature graying. Deficiency could exacerbate age-related hair loss and thinning. A small study found that patients with alopecia areata have significantly lower levels of vitamin E than healthy controls. In another small study, researchers documented increased hair count in patients receiving vitamin E supplementation compared to those receiving placebo. 

B complex vitamins comprise eight water-soluble vitamins crucial for cellular energy production and metabolism. Deficiencies in riboflavin, niacin, biotin, folate, and vitamin B12 have been associated with hair loss and reduced hair strength (1, 34). In a 2016 study of 541 females, researchers diagnosed biotin deficiency in 38% of the participants experiencing hair loss.

Ensuring adequate vitamin intake is key to healthy hair. This can be achieved through diet and supplementation. Dietary sources of hair-supporting vitamins include:

  • Vitamin A: Liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, leafy green vegetables
  • Vitamin D: Fatty fish, fortified milk, egg yolks
  • Vitamin E: Sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, spinach
  • B-Complex Vitamins: Beef, poultry, salmon, eggs, legumes, nuts, and whole grains

Consult a healthcare professional before considering supplementation. Excessive vitamin intake can be harmful, and dosages should be personalized based on individual needs and potential interactions with medications.

For a more personalized approach, micronutrient testing is available so that individual's can find out their precise levels or vitamins and other nutrients. The Micronutrient Test by SpectraCell Laboratories and the NutrEval Test by Genova are both thorough options for detecting possible deficiencies.

Protein: The Building Block of Hair

Keratin, the protein that forms the core of hair strands, is synthesized from smaller protein building blocks called amino acids. These amino acids are primarily obtained through our diet. Protein-energy malnutrition is associated with skin and hair alterations. When protein intake is insufficient or restricted by certain diets, keratin production suffers, leading to brittle hair strands, stunted hair growth, dullness, and dryness. Research has shown that deficiencies in the amino acids histidine, leucine, and valine are common in patients with alopecia. (34

The good news is that mindful dietary choices can support protein status and hair health. Include protein-rich foods from diverse sources – lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds – in the diet. Eating a variety of protein-rich foods provides a spread of amino acids for optimal protein utilization. Restrictive diets may not provide adequate protein, potentially impacting hair health. Consulting a registered dietitian can help ensure your dietary choices support overall health and your desire for strong, healthy hair.

Addressing Nutrient Deficiencies: A Root Cause Medicine Approach

Hair loss, while frustrating, can often be addressed through a holistic treatment for hair loss focused on nourishing your body from the inside out. This combined approach considers dietary modifications, lifestyle changes, and, when necessary, targeted supplementation. Successful and holistic treatment for hair loss requires addressing the underlying causes of hair loss. Consult an integrative dermatologist or functional medicine practitioner for a comprehensive evaluation and personalized treatment plan if hair loss persists despite these efforts.

Dietary Pillars for Strong Hair

Prioritize protein-rich foods like lean meats, fish, eggs, legumes, and nuts to supply the building blocks for keratin production.

Go green with leafy vegetables: These nutrient powerhouses are rich in iron, zinc, and vitamins A and C, crucial for hair health.

Embrace healthy fats: Omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish and flaxseeds can reduce inflammation and support hair growth.

Remember hydration: Water is essential for overall health, including hair follicle function. The general rule of thumb is to drink eight cups of water daily, though individual needs will vary depending on factors like body weight and activity level.

Supplement with caution. While certain supplements might benefit hair health under specific circumstances, remember that supplements should never replace a nutritious diet. Seek professional guidance before considering supplementation. What works for one person might not be suitable for another. Consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice based on your individual needs and potential interactions with medications. Be wary of excessive or unregulated supplements, as they can be harmful. Choose reputable brands and adhere to recommended dosages.

When nutrient deficiencies persist despite adequate nutrition, patients should be evaluated for digestive disorders that lead to maldigestion and malabsorption

Lifestyle Shifts for Healthier Hair

Manage stress: Chronic stress can trigger hair loss. Practice relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation to manage stress levels.

Prioritize sleep: Poor sleep quality and poor sleep habits have been linked to increased risk and severity of alopecia (34). Patients should be treated for underlying sleep disorders and establish healthy sleep hygiene practices to meet recommended sleep requirements.

Limit chemical exposure: Avoid excessive heat styling and harsh chemical treatments that can damage hair.

Consider scalp massages: Gentle scalp massages improve blood circulation to the scalp and directly stimulate cells that play a role in hair growth, potentially promoting hair growth. Evidence suggests daily scalp massage can stimulate hair growth and improve hair thickness after several months. (31

When to Seek Professional Help

Certain characteristics of hair loss point toward the need for expert evaluation, especially when nutrient deficiencies might be implicated. Here are some red flags to watch for:

  • Sudden or Excessive Hair Loss: Losing more than 100 hairs daily or experiencing rapid, noticeable thinning warrants professional attention.
  • Patchy Hair Loss: Circular or irregular bald patches, particularly if accompanied by redness, scaling, or scarring, could indicate medical-specific conditions requiring diagnosis and treatment.
  • Changes in Hair Texture or Quality: If your hair becomes significantly more brittle, dry, or discolored, it could signal underlying issues beyond simple aging.
  • Hair Loss Accompanied by Other Symptoms: Fatigue, weakness, skin changes, or digestive issues alongside hair loss point toward the possibility of systemic conditions involving nutrient deficiencies.
  • Unsuccessful Self-Treatment: If home remedies and dietary adjustments haven't yielded improvement after several months, professional help is warranted.
  • Underlying Medical Conditions: If you have existing health conditions like thyroid disorders, autoimmune diseases, or hormonal imbalances, consulting a healthcare professional for hair loss becomes even more vital.

Healthcare providers play a crucial role in diagnosing the cause of hair loss and directing appropriate treatment. Their expertise includes a detailed patient history, physical examination, and diagnostic testing to identify triggers, rule out underlying medical conditions, and pinpoint specific nutrient deficiencies contributing to hair loss. Based on the diagnosis, they can recommend personalized solutions, including dietary modifications, targeted supplementation, topical treatments, or medications. Healthcare professionals provide ongoing monitoring to assess progress and adjust treatment plans as needed. Early diagnosis and intervention are key to managing hair loss effectively. If you notice any warning signs, especially in conjunction with suspected nutrient deficiencies, consult a healthcare professional promptly. They can guide you toward the most appropriate solutions for achieving healthy hair.


Nutrient Deficiencies Responsible for Hair Loss: Key Takeaways

Neglecting your nutritional needs can have surprising consequences, even impacting the health and beauty of your hair. Preventing hair loss through nutrition hinges on identifying and addressing any underlying nutrient deficiencies that may sabotage your hair's potential. A balanced diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals forms the foundation for hair health. If you're concerned about hair loss or suspect nutrient deficiencies might be playing a role, consult a healthcare professional. They can conduct a thorough evaluation, provide personalized dietary advice, and explore suitable treatment options to help you achieve your hair health goals. Thriving hair doesn't just start on the surface; it begins with nourishing your body from within.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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