More than a great cut or glamorous style, healthy hair is what makes heads turn. In a perfect world, hair would be clean, glossy and bouncy all the time.
Hair is a perfect barometer of your general health. When you’re fit and happy, your hair will swoosh, bounce and shine just like in the ads; if you’re ill, tired, stressed out or eating poorly, it will show up in your hair.
Each hair is made up of overlapping layers of the same substance, keratin, that makes up dead protein cells. When the layers lie flat and smooth, each strand reflects the light, making it shine. When the layers are damaged, no light is reflected and your hair is left looking dull and lifeless. The apparently strange but common combination of greasy scalp with dry hair may also be the result of damage – hair’s natural oil (known as sebum) is prevented from travelling down the hair shaft.
So the first step to shiny hair is to get yourself healthy, physically and emotionally: eat well, take plenty of exercise and fresh air (your hair needs oxygen too), and make sure you get enough sleep. Reduce stress levels wherever possible and, in addition, learn and practise relaxation techniques. Remember, healthy hair depends on a healthy scalp, which is of course another part of your skin, so all the suggestions we make for healthy skin in Skin apply to your hair and scalp as well. Over-processing of all sorts or overheating your hair (with a hairdryer, etc.) can also do considerable damage.
The good news is that, unless you have a medical condition, tender loving care from you, in tandem with today’s technologically advanced formulae, can give you great hair in a relatively short time.
Any and all of these are likely to damage the condition of your hair and scalp:
• Over-exposure to sun, salt air, wind and chlorinated water
• Central heating
• Some pharmaceutical drugs including the Pill, thyroid drugs, cortisone, sedatives, tranquillisers and barbiturates, amphetamines, antibiotics
• Poor diet/nutrient deficiency (particularly iron)
• Crash dieting
• Stress, anxiety, depression
• Head and neck tension, which disrupt supply of blood and vital nutrients
• Illness, shock or trauma
• Thyroid problems
• Not enough rest and sleep
• Shallow breathing
• Perming, bleaching, tinting
• Curling tongs/heated rollers/straightening irons
• Blowdrying at too high a temperature
• Too much brushing with a sharp-bristled brush
• We are born with a specific number of hair follicles which cannot be changed.
• The size of the dermal papilla (at the bottom of the follicle), which may change through illness, for example, or hormonal fluctuations, determines the thickness of the hair.
• We each have about 120,000 hairs; blondes more, redheads less.
• We lose up to 100 hairs naturally every day.
• Although the hair we see is technically dead, with no blood, nerves or muscles, healthy hair can stretch up to 30 per cent in length, absorb its own weight in water, and swell up to 14 per cent in diameter.
• Hair grows an average of half an inch (13mm) each month, faster in summer than in winter.
Feed your hair
No miracle shampoo and condition regime can compensate for the wrong diet. Not only do healthy hair cells need the right nutrients and plenty of fresh water, good digestion is also vital, according to nutritionist Kathryn Marsden. ‘Dull, oily hair may be the result of poor elimination of wastes and toxins, poor circulation, inadequate fluid intake, a sluggish bowel – or of simply being below par.’ In these circumstances, she suggests a regular cleansing diet with herbal and vitamin supplements.
Foods to help your hair are live yoghurt, plenty of fresh vegetables, salads and fruits, cold-pressed oils (e.g. olive, safflower, sesame – but don’t cook with them as it alters the chemical composition), linseeds, pulses, sunflower/pumpkin/sesame seeds, sea vegetables (seaweed/samphire), wholegrains (brown rice/oats), buckwheat, millet, almonds, figs and dates. If you’re not vegetarian, fresh oily fish (e.g. mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, sardines). Plus plenty of pure water.
Try to cut down on cow’s milk products, caffeine, cola, chocolate, sugar, salt, saturated and hydrogenated fats, processed foods.
Try to give up smoking. (This, of course, goes for every single facet of health and beauty.)
Supplements can help. All the B vitamins, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), fish oil, linseed oil, antioxidants including vitamins beta-carotene, C and E, and minerals, selenium and zinc. One bonus: as hair and nails are made of the same protein (keratin), eating for healthy hair also improves your nails.
Thirty per cent of women will notice some thinning of their hair by the age of 50; in comparison, 50 per cent of men will notice some change before 30. In men, the hair loss is more severe and concentrated in specific areas (e.g. the crown, temples etc.), whereas in women it tends to be a general all-over thinning. Although it’s a well-accepted fact that male pattern baldness is due to the activity of testosterone (the male hormone, also present in women), prescribed hormones are a greatly overlooked cause of thinning hair in women, according to biochemist and trichologist Dr Hugh Rushton. Many women are suffering hair loss, he says, through taking various types of HRT (hormone replacement therapy). Meanwhile, the contraceptive pill can affect hair in both ways: hair loss or its opposite, hirsutism. Legendary trichologist Philip Kingsley says he has also found that women with irregular menstrual cycles or with polycystic ovaries (which, research indicates, may affect more than ten per cent of women of reproductive age) often suffer hair loss.
The sudden bald patches of alopecia areata (AA) are thought to be stimulated by an auto-immune response (where the immune system acts against itself); some experts believe this is exacerbated by stress, combined with genetic susceptibility to AA. If there are just one or two patches, they will usually grow back within six to nine months, according to Dr Rushton.
So what can be done? Fortunately, for women, inherited female hair loss is much easier to treat medically than male pattern baldness. With specialist advice, supported by a good general health regime, virtually all women with genetic hair loss can normally expect a 30 to 40 per cent regrowth. Treatment is usually a combination of hormone therapy (oral or topical) and topical drug therapy, together with nutritional supplementation; blood tests are necessary to determine nutrient levels. Treatment must be given under medical supervision; Dr Rushton suggests you ask your doctor to refer you to a gynaecologist, endocrinologist (hormone expert) or dermatologist with a specific expertise in this field.
More extensive hair loss may respond to topical corticosteroid creams. Meanwhile, really good wigs and hairpieces are now available, and support organisations such as Hairline International can offer further information.
TIP Women who experience thinning hair during menopause should have their thyroid levels checked, especially if they are also feeling tired, advises Dr Rushton.