How Digestion + Gut Health Impacts Hair Health
Hair loss is a really traumatizing experience.
Not only is it stressful to lose a significant amount of hair, it can also be a wake-up call to listen to the messages your body is sending. For a lot of people, this is the trigger that puts them on path to taking better care of themselves.
Healthy hair is not an essential part of health, so it's one of the first things to show up when there is an underlying imbalance. It's also one of the last things to improve, so go easy on yourself and remember there are no quick fixes here.
Hair loss can occur for many reasons, several of which are intricately connected to digestion and gut health.
In this article, you'll learn some of the potential underlying causes of your hair loss, plus some nutrients you can focus on incorporating for healthy hair.
3 Common Causes of Hair Loss
1. Nutrient Deficiencies
Maybe you're missing key nutrients in your diet. Or maybe you’re eating healthy, but your digestive function is impaired so you’re not absorbing enough of the nutrients you need for healthy hair.
It's not just about what you eat, it's what you absorb.
Systemic inflammation can stem from many places, creating hormone imbalances that increase hair loss. It's important to focus on the foundations: sleep, blood sugar, stress management, nutrition and gut health to manage inflammation.
Addressing the root cause of inflammation usually means diet and lifestyle changes, not just adding a turmeric supplement.
3. Stress Response
Stressful and traumatic events can trigger hair loss up to 3 months later. Experiencing hair loss during or after a period of increased stress is common, and can take months to improve.
Stress can also be internal, related to over-exertion or imbalances in the body. If your hair loss isn't tied to emotional stress, consider physical stress.
Before looking for the more complex root causes of hair loss, focus on addressing nutrition, inflammation and stress.
Essential Nutrients for Hair Health
Protein is the backbone nutrient of your hair! Keratin is a hardened protein and it’s what your hair is made of. If you’re not getting enough, your hair will grow slower and it won’t be as strong.
Try to eat protein with every meal. Adding easily digested proteins like collagen or even supplemental amino acids can be helpful in addition to consuming plenty of whole food protein daily.
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are found in the cell membrane of scalp skin and keep hair hydrated to prevent breaking.
I recommend eating fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines twice per week and eating nuts and seeds like flax, chia, hemp, and walnuts daily. Omega-3 supplements are helpful for some people, but I always recommend getting nutrients from food first.
Iron shuttles oxygen around your body in red blood cells. If you have low iron, you’re not going to be getting enough iron to your hair follicles, which is why we see hair loss with anemia.
Make sure you are looking at ferritin on bloodwork (which is your iron storage) as low ferritin can cause hair loss as well. Iron absorption depends on proper digestion and good gut health. I don't often recommend iron supplements, and instead recommend addressing gut imbalances and consuming plenty of iron-rich foods like spinach, legumes, red meat, and organ meat.
Zinc is a mineral that binds the proteins in your hair and ensures the proper functioning of your oil glands, so it is essential for hair health. Low zinc also causes low stomach acid, so it goes hand in hand with a variety of health issues we see downstream from low stomach acid, like poor protein digestion and low iron.
Sprouted nuts/seeds, meat, and oysters are great sources of zinc to include daily.
5. B Vitamins
Biotin gets a lot of PR about hair health, but B6, B12, and folate are also needed to create the red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body.
I never recommend taking single b-vitamin (such as biotin) outside of a complex because they work synergistically. Biotin supplements have been repeatedly shown not to help hair growth, so focus on eating a wide variety of foods to get all the b-vitamins your body needs.
6. Vitamin C
Vitamin C helps with iron absorption and is required for your body to make collagen. Hair needs collagen, so make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin C from foods like strawberries, citrus, bell peppers and broccoli.
Supplementing with collagen does not work to increase collagen in the body, as it is broken down into amino acids. Your body still needs Vitamin C to make collagen with those amino acids.
If you've been eating healthy and are still struggling with hair loss, it's time to dig deeper and look for imbalances that could be stopping those nutrients from doing their job.
Gut Imbalances That Can Cause Hair Loss
H. Pylori Infection
H. pylori is a bacteria that colonizes in the stomach and causes low stomach acid. If you’re not digesting properly, you won’t have the ingredients for healthy hair.
Red flags for H. pylori include trouble digesting meat, nausea, heartburn, reflux, fatigue, and nutrient deficiencies. I recommend stool testing to check for H. pylori.
Undiagnosed Celiac Disease is associated with thyroid problems and nutrient deficiencies which can both lead to hair loss. This autoimmune disease causes damage to the gut lining and requires a gluten-free diet to be managed.
If you suspect you have Celiac Disease, talk to your doctor about testing before you go gluten-free.
SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth)
SIBO can reduce nutrient absorption and initiate a cascade of inflammation that can affect various parts of your body, including hair follicles. If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS and if you notice that “healthy” foods (like veggies) cause bloating, this could be going on for you.
It's also important to find and address the root cause for why you developed SIBO because it has a very high relapse rate when antibiotics or herbal antimicrobials are used without a root cause approach.
If you have chronically low iron, hair loss, food cravings, and fatigue, parasites are a possibility. A history of traveling to certain high-risk areas is also a risk factor but it's possible to contract parasites anywhere.
Stomach acid is your body's primary line of defence against parasites, so it's important to keep digestion healthy to prevent future infestations.
The inability to digest something properly can throw off your ability to absorb any other nutrients in the meal. For example, people with gallbladder problems often cannot absorb fats. Since many nutrients require fat to pass through the gut lining into the bloodstream, fat malabsorption increases risk of fat-soluble vitamin deficiencies.
Diarrhea is a red flag for malabsorption, so if you struggle with loose stools frequently this could be playing a part for you.