Having a bad hair day can be a pain for anyone although for millions of men and women, the problem stems from something more than just bed head. Hair loss, also known as androgenic alopecia continues to be one of the most frustrating and difficult conditions to endure and can be even tougher to treat. While there continues to be an attitude of resignation amongst many, there may be some ways to prevent hair loss and perhaps even return hair to a more normal, if not lustrous state.
Whether or not germs can help or hinder this process remains a mystery although there have been studies that suggest that the use of probiotics can help. Since 2007, experiments in mice have shown that the use of a certain well-known probiotic strain, known as Lactobacillus, can help to reduce the levels of hair loss and even contribute to a healthy appearance. Yet, while these studies may imply that bacteria are the solution, the mechanisms behind these results are much more complex and centre on the always enigmatic condition of inflammation.
To get a better idea of how good germs can help to improve the hair, I spoke with Sylvie Prud'homme, a Toronto salon co-owner and hair aficionado. She has been working on the crowns of thousands of people including celebrities. She has seen all type of hair and over time, has even found ways to improve some conditions. Although from her perspective, the answer lies not only in the lineup of product formulations at the salon, but also the makeup of foods in the kitchen.
"Diet directly affects the condition of hair quality and growth. Hair is essentially made up of dead protein, sulphur and water, therefore having a healthy diet that is high in all three ingredients is required for luscious locks. Protein such as fish, lean meats and beans will create a strong cortex in the hair follicle. High sulphuric foods such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale will also strengthen and detox your hair, as well as aid the liver rid your body of toxins. High fatty acid foods including cashews, avocado and fish oils will keep it lustrous and prevent dulling. And drinking plenty of water assures that you have a steady blood flow and oxygen to the papilla, which continues to keep the base of the hair follicle active."
The majority of these diet requirements are known to help prevent inflammation and chronic disease. As well, they are also the ones that have been shown to work with the good bacteria, such as probiotics, to keep the body balanced. Yet from Prud'homme's perspective, the dietary factors may also help to combat a different type of hair-killing inflammation: the one caused by stress.
"Stress plays a major factor in hair loss. Besides cases of clients consciously or subconsciously pulling out their hair as a coping mechanism, there are two other ways that I've seen stress-related hair problems. Medical stress caused by drugs, such as those used in chemotherapy, heavy medication, and in some cases birth control all lead to an increase in inflammation. The third example is emotional stress. Your body can shock your hair into a resting state during high stress, or anxiety and depression. The root of the hair essentially dies and does not send any blood to the hair bulb. The hair will eventually detach from the scalp within a few months and may not grow back, quite similar to a rotten tooth."
Studies have shown that stress can cause chronic inflammation and unfortunately, the hair follicle can be a target. Thankfully, the use of probiotics may help not only to improve inflammation but also improve mood. But even though studies in both mice and humans have shown that there may be an improvement in hair due to changes in diet, stress levels and of course, probiotics, there is little work in the clinical world to outrightly prove these findings. For Prud'homme, who is her own guinea pig, there is no need for such trials; she has already identified what works.
"As a hairstylist, I have the habit of constantly changing my hair color. All the chemical aggression to my hair follicle has obviously affected the quality of my already fine hair. I started to be much more careful about how I treated my hair...and myself. I worked hard to keep my stress levels down but as the owner of a small business, that can be tough. I also changed my diet to a Paleolithic -- or paleo -- diet one and a half years ago. Paleo diet mostly consists of proteins, vegetables and nuts. The results have been dramatic. Not only is my hair thicker and stronger, my skin is clearer and my nails grow longer and stronger. I've since recommended the changes to others, including a woman in her 50s who had suffered from fine, thinning hair all her life. After six weeks of taking on a similar change -- and admittedly some amazing new product formulations -- I noticed a different in density directly at her scalp. She had a healthy diet and lifestyle and sure enough, hair!"
The most interesting aspect of the change is the incorporation of the paleo diet. While only recently gaining popularity, this diet, it has been around for the past 40 years, and known to help decrease inflammation. Yet inside the gut, this pre-historic meal plan also apparently helps to maintain a happy and healthy microbiome. A diet rich in refined foods is known to cause dysbiosis in which the good germs are replaced with unhealthy ones that cause inflammation. By removing these components from the diet, the good germs will thrive and help to maintain a healthier state and thus prevent inflammation and subsequent hair loss.
From a scientific perspective, the debate over the ability to prevent and reverse hair thinning and loss is far from over. There continues to be research into other factors involved in alopecia including genetics, the effect of hormones, and the presence of specific molecules within the cell matrix. In turn, other methods to prevent hair loss and restore it such as the FDA approved treatments, Rogaine and Laser Therapy, as well as far less conventional methods including the use of flower and fungal extracts continue to be explored. Yet, for Prud'homme, the science only confirms her experience and knowledge. For her, the answers are fairly straightforward.
"To prevent hair loss and help restore hair, the scientific means are being better understood and we are seeing some excellent formulations in the salon. But, I always recommend the non-scientific means to help. First and foremost, keep to a healthy diet and lifestyle and keep that inflammation down. In addition, create blood flow to the scalp by receiving or performing scalp massages. By stimulating the scalp, you are forcing blood flow to the papilla, ensuring oxygen to the hair bulb. Use the right shampoo with ingredients such as taurine, an amino acid which keeps the collagen surrounding the hair follicle; Vitamin D and biotin, which inhibit the enzymes that cause hair loss; and the combination of ceramide and arginine to protect the cuticle. And ensure that you are eating well and keeping your stresses low."
There is probably one more piece of advice to share. Until we have a perfect scientific answer to helping hair problems, the best option may be to pick up the phone and give your friendly neighbourhood hair expert a call.