The state of your hair reflects the state of your internal health. Lustrous locks are associated with vibrant health; while dull, weak or thinning hair may indicate poor health generally. Naturopath and medical herbalist Paul Keogh explains how Chinese herbs can help support your inner health and promote revitalised hair growth.
First published by Go Vita in Go Magazine - April 2012
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a major system of medicine drawing on both ancient knowledge and modern, scientific evidence. It is based on fundamental energetic principles and their relationship to all body functions. The main concepts include 'Qi' (translated as 'vital energy'), Blood (physical blood, as well as nutritive forces within the body), 'Jing' (translated as 'Kidney essence' or 'inherited Qi'), 'Shen' (translated as 'mind and spirit') and 'Yin' and 'Yang' (opposing forces that regulate the flow of Qi) and a network of meridians (channels to distribute the Qi throughout the body).
TCM and hair loss
According to principles of TCM, the growth and development of hair depends on proper functioning of the Kidney and Liver organ-meridian systems. The Liver organ-meridian governs hair health and is supported energetically by Kidney Jing, which influences the growth of all body cells, including the hair. The Liver Blood nourishes the hair follicle and the hair itself is seen as an extension of blood. The most common causes of declining hair condition, premature greying and hair loss are deficient and/or stagnant Liver Blood and Kidney energy deficiency, especially Kidney Jing but also Kidney Yin; the latter prevents dryness and supports the nourishing action of Blood. In Western medicine, poor hair condition or hair loss are attributed to a variety of causes including hormonal imbalance (eg. androgenic alopecia and hypothyroidism), autoimmune disorders (eg. alopecia areata, alopecia totalis and alopecia universalis), side effects of medication and nutritional deficiencies.
Chinese herbs and hair health
Chinese herbs can help to restore healthy hair growth and condition. Blood tonic herbs nourish the blood and activate the circulation to reinvigorate the hair follicle. Also important are herbs that support the Kidney energy and replenish Jing to promote healthy hair growth. From a Western perspective, Blood tonic herbs usually also have immune regulating actions, which may be relevant in managing immunological causes of hair loss such as alopecia areata. Physiologically, the kidneys are an important organ for detoxification, which filter the blood and remove toxins (such as lead) that may otherwise accumulate in the hair and reduce its quality. Herbs that support the Kidney often also help to regulate age-related hormonal imbalances that can lead to male and female pattern baldness, hair thinning and premature greying.
Polygonum multiflorum is a primary herb for nourishing Blood, invigorating hair growth and inhibiting premature greying. In Chinese medicine, this herb tonifies both the Liver and Kidney, nourishes the Liver Blood and strengthens Kidney essence (Jing) to support hair follicle function and development of healthy hair. Research has shown that it inhibits DHT (the potent form of testosterone) and may therefore be a useful treatment for androgenic alopecia (male and female pattern baldness). Other studies have shown that it helps retain melanin (colour) within the hair shaft and promotes a healthy immune system.
A combination of four highly respected Chinese herbs including White Peony, Dong Quai, Chinese Foxglove and Sichuan Lovage promote the quality and circulation of Blood. Scientific evidence confirms significant blood regulating effects including blood building or haematopoietic action as well as immune regulating and antioxidant effects. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Paeonia lactiflora (White Peony) nourishes the Blood while soothing and calming the Liver Yang (translated as 'vital function') and protecting the Yin (translated as 'vital essence'). Studies have found it improves circulation and has anticoagulant properties. It can also modulate hormones, particularly androgens related to male and female pattern baldness and certain female reproductive conditions.
Angelica polymorpha (Dong Quai) is a renowned Blood tonic that invigorates the Blood and harmonises the relationship between the Liver and Kidney. Research has found that it may improve blood iron levels, supporting its traditional use as a Blood builder. It also regulates the immune system, and protects the liver and kidneys. These properties correlate well with its traditional use in Chinese medicine. Rehmannia glutinosa (Chinese Foxglove) nourishes the Yin and tonifies the Liver. This herb has been widely researched and found to stimulate the immune system, protect the kidneys and improve skin conditions such as dermatitis (which can be implicated in cases of poor hair condition or hair loss). Ligusticum wallichii (Sichuan Lovage) is an important Blood nourishing herb that inhibits stagnation and enhances the flow of both Blood and Qi (vital energy). In Western medicine terms, this herb is a circulatory stimulant, vasodilator and hormone regulator.
Other exceptional Chinese herbs to look for to help nourish the hair follicle and support healthy hair growth are Cuscuta hygrophilae (Asian Dodder), Psoralea corylifolia (Bu Gu Zhi) and Glycyrrhiza uralensis (Licorice). Cuscuta and Psoralea both replenish Kidney Jing, which is the foundation for cellular growth and development including hair follicle cells, and harmonise Yin and Yang to enhance the flow of Qi to the hair follicles. Scientific research has found that both these herbs help to protect the liver. Psoralea may also act as a vasodilator and Cuscuta has immune stimulating properties. Glycyrrhiza uralensis (Licorice) is one of the most prevalent herbs in Chinese medicine as it has the ability to harmonise other herbs within a combined formula.
Good nutrition is also essential to support hair growth and development. A balanced diet along with a high-quality multi vitamin and mineral complex will help ensure that all the essential nutrients required for hair growth are available in adequate amounts. Specific nutrients can help support healthy hair follicle function and even form part of the hair structure itself as well as assist in the production of normal sebum that naturally conditions and protects the hair. Common nutrient insufficiencies or deficiencies affecting hair growth are iron, zinc, vitamin A and essential fatty acids. Other specific nutrients that support healthy hair condition include silica, vitamin D, biotin, vitamin B5 and protein. Many herbal extracts are naturally high in minerals which further benefit hair health.
Besides our internal health, the condition of our hair can be affected by other factors such as over-styling, colouring, environmental toxins (eg. chlorine in swimming pools), and overexposure to the sun. Skin conditions such as dandruff, dermatitis, psoriasis and fungal infections can also damage hair follicles and adversely effect hair growth. In these cases, Chinese herbs can provide internal nourishment to restore the health of the skin, including the hair follicle, and re-establish healthy hair growth.
Considering the time, effort and money many of us dedicate to our hair, it makes sense to get to the root cause and support hair health from the inside out. The Chinese herbs mentioned above can successfully restore hair growth, improving texture, colour and volume; and are suitable for all hair types and colours in men, women and children.
Paul Keogh is the executive and technical director for Global Therapeutics P/L trading as Fusion Health. Paul is a qualified naturopath and medical herbalist with 24 years combined experience in clinical practice and the development of integrated Chinese and western herbal medicines.