In order to be healthy and withstand damage, our hair needs many vital nutrients – from ample protein to a slew of essential nutrients. The fact that this list is so exhaustive means that most of us don’t end up getting an adequate amount of these hair-building nutrients.
Once we understand how hair grows, we can also identify the nutrients it needs. This article covers both.
Hair’s Growth & the Nutrients it Needs
Every strand of hair has two distinct structures:
A] The part you don’t see: this is a pocket that resides within our skin (which is why skin and hair problems are interrelated), and is called ‘the follicle’.
B] The part you do see: the ‘shaft’1
There are three main points at which nutrients are needed in order for the structures to grow strong and healthy.
#1: The Cells
A hair strand’s root is located at the bottom of a follicle, and is made up of cells. These cells are given their supply of nutrients through blood vessels in our scalp.
All cells require specific nutrients in order to do certain things. Here’s a look at what these, expressly, need:
Vitamin D is required by our cells in order to multiply and mature.2 While it is produced in the body on exposure to sunlight, factors like a busy lifestyle might make it necessary to take a vitamin D supplement to get a sufficient amount of it.
These play a role in a number of processes that help cells grow and metabolise. Biotin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12, in particular, are believed to contribute significantly towards having healthy hair, starting right from the cells.
When it comes to their food sources, vitamin B12 is often missing from vegetarian –especially vegan – diets, since it’s primarily found in meat, eggs and dairy.
Biotin is also found in these foods, but is nevertheless readily available for vegans and vegetarians, given that grains, nuts and root vegetables are also good sources of it.
Rich sources of vitamin b6 include meat, eggs, potatoes and bananas.
#2: Hair Protein
The cells in #1 use the abovementioned nutrients to make a hard protein called keratin – which is what the hair shaft that extends beyond the follicle is made up of.
Now, in addition to those nutrients, keratin also needs:
The amino acids from the proteins we eat are used as the building blocks for proteins in the body. That’s why a diet rich in protein is a great starting point for having healthy hair.
Methionine, lysine and cystine, more specifically, proteins our body needs in order to build keratin. These are normally obtained from legumes, meat and eggs. Vitamin B6 once again comes into play here, by helping incorporate cystine into the hair, reiterating the need to eat its sources mentioned in #1!3
Minerals like iron and zinc help produce keratin.4, 5
These can be found in a normal diet, but a bad diet leads to deficiencies in these minerals (this actually happens quite commonly amongst Indians), and our hair begins to fall.5
Eating plenty of red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, dark leafy greens, and dried fruit helps with our intake of iron, while meat, beans, nuts, and whole grains give us a good dose of zinc.
#3: The Hair Shaft outside the Follicle
As the hair grows, it gets pushed up through the skin, passing an oil gland along the way. The oil from the gland keeps the hair moisturised.
By this time, the hair is dead – it is simply a structure of protein (keratin) – which is why it doesn’t hurt to get a haircut. The nutrients required here keep our hair moisturised and protected from damage (from the sun and other environmental factors). These nutrients include:
Omega 3 fatty acids:
Inflammation of the oil gland that a hair passes through makes the hair oily, while inflammation in the scalp can cause hair loss.5
Omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, keeping our hair healthy, and are even believed to help prevent hair loss (when the cause isn’t a hormonal or genetic factor). These fats also keep the scalp hydrated, by preventing water from being evaporated.
Good sources of omega 3 fatty acids include oily fish and flaxseed oil.
GLA (gamma linolenic acid):
GLA keeps the skin supple and moist; without them, the skin becomes flaky, irritated and inflamed.
As with omega-3, insufficient GLA can lead to inflammation, which we know means oily hair and hair loss.6
Our body does not make any GLA; it relies on our diet in order to get its supply of this fatty acid. This can be a problem because GLA is found in sources like borage oil and primrose oil, which are not common in a regular diet. This makes supplementation often necessary.
The orange colour of carrots comes from a compound called beta-carotene, which belongs to a group of plant pigments called carotenoids.
Our body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A, which helps with the maintenance and growth of cells and oil glands.7 Apart from carrots, beta-carotene is found red-orange and green plant foods.
Vitamin E and Other Antioxidants:
Vitamin E is a strong antioxidant that fights free radicals, protecting us from the sun’s UV rays, pollution and other external stressors, as well as internal stressors (like stress). It is also transported to the scalp, via oil glands, in order to protect our hair and skin on the surface.8 Antioxidants even fight inflammation!
Vitamin E is especially great for promoting the growth of blood vessels, which increases blood circulation to the scalp and consequently promotes hair growth. Almonds, sunflower oil and safflower oil, and fruits (such as avocados, mangoes and papayas) are all good sources of vitamin E.
Other antioxidants that protect the hair and skin from damage can be found in various other food sources like green tea, fruits, vegetables etc. A balanced diet should give you a good mix of these, but you can also supplement with strong doses of antioxidants.
These nutrients, whether obtained through your diet or supplementation, can help nurture, nourish and protect your hair from within – which is, incidentally, just one of the great by-products of all their other health benefits!
1. Montagna W, Ellis RA. The Biology of Hair Growth. Elsevier Science, 2013.
2. Hu L, et al. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology 2014, 144: 237-241.
3. Ioannides D, Tosti A. Alopecias – Practical Evaluation and Management. S. Karger AG, 2015.
4. Miniaci MC, et al. J Cell Biochem 2016, 117(2): 402-412.
5. Breitkopf T, et al. Dermatologic Clinics 2013, 31(1): 1-19.
6. Johnson MM, et al. The Journal of nutrition 1997, 127(8): 1435-1444.
7. Litwack G. Vitamin A; Vitamins and Hormones, vol. 75. Elsevier: London, UK, 2007.
8. Ekanayake-Mudiyanselage S, Thiele J. Hautarzt 2006, 57(4): 291-296.