The expression "you are what you eat" usually implies that if you eat a lot of fat, sugar or other junk, your body will become full of fat, sugar or junk. The reverse is also true: you aren’t what you’re not eating. While some cases of hair loss are due to genes and male pattern baldness, stress, or autoimmune disorders, in some cases, hair loss can occur because you’re just not getting enough nutritious food. Find out if your hair loss is connected to a lack of any of these nutrients, then talk to your doctor about ways to make sure you’re getting enough of them in your diet.
What’s hair made of? The answer is protein, and if you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, you’ll start to see the effects after a few months. Since your hair is made primarily of protein, your body pushes more hairs into the telogen, or resting phase, instead of the anagen, or actively growing stage. The goal is to preserve the limited supply of protein that you have. Once in the telogen phase, your hair usually falls out after a few months.
A number of things can lead to a protein deficiency. You might have recently switched to a meat-free diet and are trying to find ways to get enough protein in your diet. Or, you might have gone on a crash diet and subsisted on glasses of lemon juice or another liquid for days or weeks at a time.
The good news is that hair loss related to a protein deficiency can be fixed by adding protein back into your diet. It’s usually recommended that you get two to three servings of protein daily. If you eat meat, that can be three 3-ounce portions of beef, chicken, fish or pork. Protein sources for vegetarians include eggs, beans, nuts, cheese and some grains.
An iron deficiency is another common reason for hair loss, particularly in women. Iron plays a part in helping produce the protein that makes up each piece of hair. Getting enough iron through diet can be tricky for some people. The most usable form of iron is found in meat, particularly offal (organ meat), clams and oysters. All other forms of meat are also good sources of bioavailable iron, which your body readily absorbs and makes use of.
If you don’t eat meat, getting enough usable iron can be tricky. It’s found in leafy greens, beans and certain seeds. But the type of iron found in plant-based foods isn’t the same as the type found in meat. Your body might not absorb as much of it.
Your doctor can help you determine if your hair loss is linked to an iron deficiency and can help you find ways to make sure you’re getting an adequate amount of the mineral in your diet. It might be that you need to take an iron supplement to boost the amount of the mineral that your body can actually use. Low iron is particularly common in pre-menopausal women, where the monthly cycle can contribute to a loss of blood and therefore iron.
A study from Cairo University examined the connection between hair loss and vitamin D levels. Women in the study who were experiencing thinning hair were also likely to have lower vitamin D levels, and lower iron levels. The lower the levels of vitamin D and iron, the more pronounced the hair loss.
It’s thought that vitamin D plays a part in regulating the genes that encourage follicle growth. Without an adequate amount of it in your diet, those follicles don’t grow as they should.
Getting enough vitamin D can be difficult. One great source of it is sunlight, but sun exposure also increases a person’s risk for skin cancer or signs of aging. Other sources of it include fortified milk, certain types of orange juice and salmon, and vitamin supplements.
Interestingly, getting too much of certain nutrients, such as vitamin A, can also lead to hair loss. When you take in too much Vitamin A at once, either over the short term or long term, you can develop hypervitaminosis A. Vitamin A is fat soluble, so your body processes it differently than other vitamins, which are water soluble and easily flushed out. Reducing your vitamin A intake and eliminating the excess nutrient from your body should help reverse the hair loss.
Figuring out the exact cause of hair loss can be tricky, which is why it’s a good idea to see a surgeon who specializes in hair restoration to diagnose your condition and recommend the best course of action. Hair loss due to vitamin or nutrient deficiency usually turns around when your diet improves. If the hair loss is for another reason, you might need a hair transplant to correct it.
Dr. Jeffrey Epstein is a board certified hair restoration specialist who can diagnose your hair loss and help you choose the best course of action. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Epstein, call (212) 759-3484 to reach the New York office or (305) 666-1774 for an appointment in Miami.