Healthy-looking hair is often a sign of good general health, as well as good hair-care practices.1
Nutritional deficiency on the other hand is often reflected in changes to the scalp and hair, potentially causing hair to change colour, be weakened, or lost.
With the pandemic and resultant lock-down turning many people’s worlds upside; limiting the food we can source, the amount of time we can spend outside, and effecting sleep and stress levels, it’s not surprising that this may have had knock on effect for health (including the health of our hair).
Lack of sunshine –
At the start of lock-down people were only allowed outside once a day to exercise, and for those who are fully shielding, the amount of time they have spent outdoors in recent months is likely to have been severely limited. This may have resulted in a significant reduction in vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is synthesised by the skin in response to UV-B radiation from the sun and many people already have sub-optimal levels. Data from animal studies suggests that vitamin D plays a role in hair follicle cycling,2 meaning when there isn’t enough vitamin D in your system, new hair growth may be stunted. This is further evidenced by the observation of hair-loss in those suffering with rickets3 (which is caused by vitamin D deficiency). Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to alopecia, the autoimmune condition that causes bald patches on the scalp and other areas of the body.4
Vitamin D is only present in a limited number of foods, and dietary intake is generally insufficient to maintain adequate levels. To ensure sufficient vitamin D levels, people therefore need to ensure they are spending some time outdoors everyday with their face, arms and/or legs exposed. During the winter months and for those still self-isolating, a supplement may also be required.
Drinking too much alcohol –
Many people reported an increase in alcohol levels during lock-down, perhaps in response to increased stress and boredom. Unfortunately excess alcohol intake can deplete many nutrients from the body, especially the water-soluble B vitamins. The vitamin B family includes eight water-soluble vitamin substances—thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), vitamin B6, biotin (B7), folate, and vitamin B12—that aid in cell metabolism. Riboflavin, biotin, folate, and vitamin B12 deficiencies have all been associated with hair loss.3
To reduce nutrient loss, limit alcohol intake to 1 or 2 drinks a night max, and aim to have at least 2-3 evenings off drinking a week. There are now a variety of delicious alcohol-free wines, beers and gins available, so you don’t have to feel left out at social events (now that they are happening again).
The stress hormone, cortisol, is known to affect the function and cyclic regulation of the hair follicle. When cortisol is present at high levels it has been demonstrated to reduce the synthesis and accelerate the degradation of important skin and hair elements (hyaluronan and proteoglycans), by approximately 40%,5 potentially leading to increased hair loss – hence the expression “I’m pulling my hair out” that people often use when they are stressed or anxious.
Taking steps to reduce stress levels is likely to be beneficial for many aspects of health. It could be something as simple as going for a daily walk on your lunch break, doing some breathing exercises or a guided meditation in the morning or carving time out for a bath and an early night in the evenings. For those suffering with severe stress cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling may be beneficial.
Poor sleep –
With changes in routine and increased stress levels, many people have also struggled with sleep issues during the last few months. Interestingly, a small study in men6 found that when they underwent a sleep deprivation of 48 h this resulted in a 19 percent decrease of beard-hair growth. This effect reflects the lowering of protein synthesis during sleep deprivation, and is thought to be related to hormonal disturbance.
Sleep hygiene is important to encourage a good night’s sleep. Reducing exposure to blue light from screens is thought to help encourage melatonin production (our sleep hormone), so switch off phones and computers at least an hour before bed. Ensure your bedroom is dark and cool and implement a regular bedtime routine, going to bed at the same time each evening to help regulate circadian rhythms. Magnesium is an important nutrient for sleep and relaxation, so increasing leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds and/or taking a supplement may be useful.
Poor diet –
Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are major elements in the normal hair follicle cycle, playing a role in cellular turnover. With limited availability of certain fresh foods in the super-market, financial constraints and increased stress, many people may not have been eating as well as they could. Vitamins that have a particular impact on the condition of hair include vitamin C, B vitamins and vitamin A. Minerals which influence hair growth are zinc, iron, copper, selenium, silicon, magnesium and calcium. The best way to ensure you are obtaining all of these nutrients is to eat a balanced wholefoods diet, which means cooking from scratch as much as possible using lots of fruit, vegetables (aim for 2 fruit and at least 5 veg a day, a variety of different colours), good quality protein (eg. grass-fed meat, beans, legumes, eggs, nuts) and healthy fats (from avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil). Omega 3 essential fatty acids have also been shown in studies to a positive effect on health density and health,7,8 so aim to eat 2-3 portions of oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring) a week or increase your intake of flax seeds, chia seeds and flax oil if vegetarian.
Another aspect to focus on is nutrient absorption, as you can be eating the best diet in the world but if you aren’t absorbing properly, your hair isn’t going to see the benefit. A key aspect of this is supporting the gut microbiome (the community of microorganisms in the gut), which play an important role in supporting the health of the gut lining where nutrients are absorbed. Our gut bacteria also synthesise certain nutrients for us, including B vitamins, which are important for hair health. To support the microbiome, incorporate traditionally fermented foods such as live plain yoghurt, kefir (water or dairy), kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso into the diet on a regular basis and consider taking a good quality live bacteria supplement such as Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formulation (RRP £9.48), containing 14 different strains. Whilst studies in humans examining the effects of live bacteria supplementation on hair health are limited, animal studies9 indicate that supplementing beneficial species may induce thicker more lustrous fur in both male and female mice. Female animals also displayed bacteria-induced hyperacidity coinciding with shinier hair, a feature that also aligns with fertility in human females. The researchers termed this a ‘glow of health’!
1 Goldberg LJ, Lenzy Y. Nutrition and hair. Clin Dermatol 2010; 28: 412–9.
2 Does D matter? The role of vitamin D in hair disorders and hair follicle cycling. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8s34p6b7 (accessed July 23, 2020).
3 Almohanna HM, Ahmed AA, Tsatalis JP, Tosti A. The Role of Vitamins and Minerals in Hair Loss: A Review. Dermatol. Ther. (Heidelb). 2019; 9: 51–70.
4 Lin X, Meng X, Song Z. Vitamin D and alopecia areata: Possible roles in pathogenesis and potential implications for therapy. Am. J. Transl. Res. 2019; 11: 5285–300.
5 Stress and the Hair Growth Cycle: Cortisol-Induced Hair Growth Disruption – PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27538002/ (accessed July 23, 2020).
6 Sleep deprivation decreases the beard-hair growth in man – PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3442272/ (accessed July 23, 2020).
7 Le Floc’h C, Cheniti A, Connétable S, Piccardi N, Vincenzi C, Tosti A. Effect of a nutritional supplement on hair loss in women. J Cosmet Dermatol 2015; 14: 76–82.
8 Kang J Il, Yoon HS, Kim SM, et al. Mackerel-derived fermented fish oil promotes hair growth by anagen-stimulating pathways. Int J Mol Sci 2018; 19. DOI:10.3390/ijms19092770.
9 Levkovich T, Poutahidis T, Smillie C, et al. Probiotic Bacteria Induce a ‘Glow of Health’. PLoS One 2013; 8: 53867.