The condition of your hair is often considered a reflection of your overall wellbeing, and is easily affected by poor diet and lifestyle habits, as well as by underlying health issues and exposure to heat and/or harsh chemicals.
Understanding your hair
Your hair’s physical characteristics like its natural colour, texture and how curly or straight it is are with you from birth. Since they’re due to your genetic make-up and beyond your control, any changes you make to your hair (whether at home or with the help of your hairdresser) will only be temporary.
On the other hand, the health of your hair – it’s shine, volume and strength – can be affected by a wide range of different factors, many of which you can influence.
To get a good understanding of what influences hair health, it’s useful to first understand the basics of its structure and how it grows.
Hair follicles – your hair’s growth factories
Hairs are implanted in little pockets in the scalp called follicles, which are nourished by blood vessels and rich in a form of connective tissue called collagen.
As each strand of hair grows, its root remains in the follicle while its shaft emerges from the scalp and continues to lengthen until it’s cut, broken or falls out.
The hair follicles continually progress through a life cycle consisting of three phases:
- Growth (anagen) phase: The hair follicle receives nourishment from its blood supply and the hair strand grows as much as a centimetre per month for several years at a time
- Transition (catagen) phase: The hair follicle detaches from its blood supply over a period of two to three weeks and the hair strand stops growing
- Resting (telogen) phase: The lack of nourishment causes the hair to die and fall out
Hair shaft – your luscious locks
The section of the hair that emerges from the follicle and is visible outside your scalp is called the hair shaft. It consists of three layers:
- Medulla (inner layer): Holds the hair’s pigment (colour)
- Cortex (middle layer): Also holds the hair’s pigment, plus when healthy, gives hair its strength and volume (bounciness)
- Cuticle (outer layer): A healthy cuticle has a smooth surface that reflects light (making hair look shiny) and minimises friction between individual hair strands (making it less likely to become tangled)
Issues affecting the healthy functioning of the follicles have consequences for the hair’s growth, the rate at which it’s shed from the scalp, and the underlying structure and integrity of the hair shaft.
In addition, the hair shaft can be impacted by factors that it’s exposed to after emerging from the scalp – including chemical (e.g. hair dyes), mechanical (e.g. traction) and environmental damage (e.g. sun).
Nutrients for healthy hair
Your body gets the building blocks it needs to produce hair from the nutrients you consume, and in some circumstances, hair condition can be influenced by your eating habits.
For example, are you getting enough zinc from your diet? It plays an important role in helping to maintain hair health, and inadequate dietary intake may be associated with mild hair loss.
Vitamin C often works alongside zinc, and is essential for the formation, integrity and repair of collagen, form of connective tissue found in and around the hair follicle. Silica (also known as silicon) also helps maintain connective tissue health.
Other nutrients involved in helping to maintain hair health include biotin and selenium, which are also required for the maintenance of strong, thick, healthy nails.
Other natural ways to help keep your hair healthy
- Keep your hair clean: Washing your hair removes excess oil (sebum) and debris from your scalp, which prevents it from hardening in and around the hair follicles
- Use a conditioner: Conditioning your hair helps keep the cuticle smooth, which in turn helps your hair appear shiny, reduces frizziness and prevents the friction that results in tangles
- Be gentle with your hair – especially when it’s wet: Wet hair is more fragile and prone to breakage than dry hair, so take care of it! For instance, avoid vigorous towel drying, yanking at knots and tangles and avoid pulling at your hair while fidgeting
- Use heat sparingly, if at all: For the same reason, avoid exposing your hair to the heat of blow dryers and straightening irons
- Get a trim regularly: Trimming minimises split ends (again reducing tangles and frizziness) and helps reduce the signs of wear and tear that hair becomes increasingly prone to as it gets longer
- Avoid harsh chemical treatments: Chemical treatments such as bleaching and permanent straightening alter the structure of the hair cortex; the damage becomes more significant when these treatments are performed over and over again
- Slap on a hat: Hair is susceptible to the effects of UV rays, so wear a hat when you’re outdoors
- Wear a swimming cap: If you spend time in the pool, wear a swimming cap to minimise your hair’s exposure to chlorine
- Avoid tight hairstyles: Tight hair styles (especially those that are left in for long periods of time like cornrows and braids) can pull on both the hair follicle and the hair shaft, damaging the hair
- Be patient! Improving your diet and lifestyle may have significant benefits for your hair, but those changes will only affect new hair growth, which occurs at the rate of just 3 centimetres per month, so it will take time for the damaged hair to be replaced by healthier strands
- Seek professional advice when needed: Any sudden or unusual hair loss or damage should be investigated by your healthcare professional in order to rule out underlying disease