Who doesn't want thick, shiny, bouncy hair? While we are typically concerned with the aesthetic look of our manes, the state of our hair can be an indication of overall health. Hair serves a biological purpose. Like our skin, hair helps to regulate body temperature and keep our heads warm. While emotional stress, genetics, pharmaceuticals and hormonal issues affect our hair, diet also influences hair health, function and appearance. The George Washington School of Medicine writes, "Virtually every nutritional deficiency can affect the health of our hair, skin and nails in some manner." Here is a list of foods that can work from the inside out to maintain or improve hair health.
1. Oily Cold-Water Fish
Fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, pilchards, kipper, herring and eel are all high-quality sources of protein and essential fatty acids (EFAs) omega-3 and omega-6. Those fatty acids are crucial to hair, skin and nail health, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, which writes that EFAs "help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism and maintain the reproductive system." Other research shows that these oils also can help defeat dull, dry hair and scalp and improve luster and shine. But baby mamas beware: Pregnant and lactating women need to consult their doctors on safe consumption because certain fish can contain mercury and other toxins.
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Feathers -- like our hair, nails and skin -- are composed of proteins and minerals, and a bird's diet is naturally designed to ensure the healthy development of this important feature. While bird fare like bugs, worms and grubs aren't so appealing, seeds are a tasteful way to add plant-based proteins and essential fatty acids -- two nutritional components that are crucial for healthy hair. So get creative and use a variety of seeds, including black sesame, flaxseed, sunflower, pumpkin and chia. Sprinkle them on a salad, rice, yogurt, oatmeal and cereal or add to pancakes, breads and trail mix. Or just have a handful alone.
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3. Dark Green Vegetables
Most dark greens -- such as broccoli, kale, spinach and Swiss chard -- are tremendous sources of vitamin A and iron. Vitamin A is essential for the production of natural oils that condition our hair and give it shine and elasticity. Dark green vegetables also provide iron and calcium, which are both essential to healthy hair.
When it comes to healthy hair, lately there's been a lot of buzz about biotin -- a nutrient found in egg yolks. Recent studies suggest that biotin works to protect the hair follicle and shaft to prevent breakage, thereby encouraging hair health and growth.
Since hair follicles are made up of 50 to 100 different proteins, the key to a plush ponytail may be a protein-covered plate. Legumes or beans are a great way to go, especially for vegetarians. Besides protein, most beans contain iron, zinc and B-complex vitamins.
Nuts are excellent sources of essential fatty acids, and most -- especially Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds and walnuts -- provide minerals like selenium and zinc, which are important in the development of healthy tissues, particularly the scalp. Walnuts are especially great because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
7. Whole Grains
Grains, such as whole wheat, barley, oats, quinoa, millet and spelt, provide a healthy helping of fiber and B vitamins as well as iron, zinc and silica. Silica, which is found in many whole grains (along with raisins and beer), has been called the beauty mineral. A study by the University of Cincinnati's College of Pharmacy found that fine-haired women who were given 10 milligrams of silica per day for nine months had thicker hair, increased elasticity and better tensile strength.
Related: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds
8. Oysters and Shellfish
These sea creatures of seduction, believed to be an aphrodisiac, may further bolster their Don Juan reputation by also improving the physical appearance of our hair. Oysters are a rich natural source of zinc, and most shellfish are also an excellent source of selenium, iron and protein, all crucial to hair health.
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9. Sea Veggies
Seaweed contains essential fatty acids, important factors in hair health. Alginates in seaweeds are also effective in the detoxification process of our bodies, removing substances that can disrupt healthy cell growth and, therefore, hair growth. While seaweed is common in Asian diets, it's not a staple for Americans. Simple ways to incorporate seaweed include adding it to rice, soups and salads.
Turmeric, a spice derived from the East Asian plant, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. When consumed, the spice stimulates the body's natural steroids -- corticosteroids -- to reduce inflammation and swelling. According to acupuncturist Jason Moscovitz, some hair loss can be associated with inflammatory conditions. Additionally, the MPB Research Labs in Korea conducted preliminary research that concluded a component in turmeric, curcumin, promotes hair growth by inhibiting a hormone that causes follicles to age and eventually die.
While whole foods are always preferential, supplements can provide easier access to higher concentrations of certain hard-to-get nutrients. Nutritional deficiencies can reflect in our hair, so it's a good idea to supplement your diet with a multi-vitamin, especially if you are vegetarian. To get more essential fatty acids, one can supplement with flaxseed, fish oils or some B-vitamins. If you are considering supplementation for hair health or overall health, always consult a registered dietitian or doctor before beginning a daily regimen.
12. Foods Used Topically
Some foods can perform double duty, helping to restore hair health when used topically. In traditional Chinese medicine, massaging the scalp daily with ginger juice is recommended to stimulate circulation of the blood and encourage hair growth, according to acupuncturist Jason Moscovitz. For graying hair, certain teas can refresh color in a natural way. You can soak hair in black teas for those with dark hair, try berry, hibiscus or rooibos teas for auburn or red hair, or use chamomile for blondes. And egg-protein masks may help with brittle hair. Beat two eggs and then massage into dry hair, cover with a hair cap, leave on for 10 minutes and rinse.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you eat certain foods to help keep your hair healthy? What have you found to work? Have you tried any of these foods? What experience did you have? Share your thoughts and ideas with us in the comments below.