On a personal journey to become healthier a decade ago, Christine Cole reworked her entire diet. The now-certified nutrition aesthetic practitioner and vice president of sales at hair care company LOMA noticed a simultaneous transformation: She was slimming down, and the texture of her hair was looking luxurious.
As a professional in the hair care industry, Cole was extremely familiar with skinification, a conscientious formulation trend where skincare-inspired ingredients are included in hair care products. “If you see Act+Acre, Nutrafol, and Vegamour,” says Cole, “they use skin grade-level ingredients in their hair care formulas because your scalp is skin, and your scalp absorbs faster than any other part of our body.”
Besides these specifically designed clarifying and detoxing shampoos, which remove residue and buildup that clog pores and block hair from growing, Cole realized more than elevated ingredients are required to heal hair. “You could have the cleanest scalp,” she explains, “but if you’re not eating great and feeding that follicle, what good does it do?”
It turns out that beauty truly is more than skin deep, especially when it comes to luscious locks. To achieve hair goals at any texture, both effective products and proper nutrition in tandem are paramount. “You don’t grow your hair,” Cole notes, “from the outside.”
Hair follicles are rooted in the epidermis layer of the skin, which is made up of five sublayers that work together to continually rebuild the skin’s surface. This is where nutrients are absorbed. It’s also where strong and healthy — or unhealthy — hair grows. Cole says hair products made with ingredients like aloe vera, rosemary, celery seed, turmeric, kale, and thyme are great sources of nutrients for the scalp. This means that foods ingested and digested naturally every day absorb into the blood and can give your crown a shiny and beautiful boost.
“There are certain nutrients and compounds in food that have a more direct impact on your hair health,” professional chef, nutritionist, and registered dietitian Ellie Krieger says. Good gut health feeds hair follicles as well, which makes for strong skin and nails too. “Your cells that face the world — your hair, skin, and eyes — show up as [a] healthy reflection of what’s going on inside. It is all connected.” Here are the best strategies to achieve healthy hair through food.
“It’s important to note that the nutrients work together in unison,” Krieger acknowledges, “especially in the ways they interact for hair health.” For example, if strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, or blackberries are being put into a smoothie, you need to also include essential fat to actually absorb the nutrients from the berries to see and feel their benefits. Adding avocado will similarly do the trick.
The same idea goes for lunch and dinner. To absorb the nutrients from veggies like broccoli, asparagus, or green beans, cooking them in a small amount of butter or olive oil is crucial to the process. “You can’t absorb nutrients if you don’t eat them with fat,” Cole says. Other healthy fats to indulge in or add to your meals are salmon, olives, olive oil, nuts, and chia seeds.
Water is mandatory for healthy hair. As with nutrients that need one another, Krieger emphasizes the role that healthy fats also play in hydration. “For your skin cells to hold the liquid, it needs to have a good fat surface on the outside membrane,” she says. This is why fat is essential. “Fats keep your scalp hydrated,” Cole adds. “It helps open up the hair follicle for growth.”
After nutrients are absorbed into the body with the help of fats, they need a little assistance getting to where they’re going — like the epidermis layer of the scalp. “Protein carries nutrients to our cells,” Cole explains. “It’s the building block for healthy cells.” Small amounts of grass-fed meats, dairy, dark leafy greens, and quinoa are all superb sources of protein.
A meaningful protein for healthy hair in particular is collagen, which helps renew and repair skin cells. “Collagen,” Cole says, “is an important part of your hair structure and skin structure. [It] helps hold everything together, improves hair growth, fights dandruff, and prevents hair loss.”
Over-the-counter and store-bought collagen gummies and powders are available (which Cole warns can be full of sugar). It’s also possible to retrieve the protein naturally through foods like broths as well as seaweed and algae, which naturally produce collagen. “I take two spirulina and two chlorella tablets every morning,” she shares. “It’s not a pill; it’s just in pure form.”
Vitamin C is extremely helpful in supporting collagen production. A great way to jump-start the day is to take a quarter or half of a lemon, which is rich in vitamin C like oranges, and squeeze it into a glass of water for drinking. “It cleans out your liver,” Cole says, “which helps with your gut health, digestion, and promotes brighter skin. Not all day, though! Your stomach will hurt with too much acid.”
Another powerful source of vitamin C is colorful produce. “Red peppers have three times the amount of vitamin C as green peppers,” Krieger says, “and also has more [vitamin C] than oranges.” Vitamins A, D, E, and K are also wonderful hair health supporters because they are fat soluble. “They occur naturally in foods,” Cole says, “they provide energy to the body, and they repair and renew your cells.”
“The main thing that helps your hair,” Krieger says, “is reducing inflammation in the body.” Inflammation can lead to destruction of hair follicles and poor growth, and trying to squash it is good for your heart as well. A way to do this is through antioxidants.
Certain minerals, like the right balance of iron and zinc, are particularly linked with hair and being anti-inflammatory. “Hair follicles are actually a source of iron,” Cole says, “but if your iron levels are low, your body will use your iron stored in your hair because it needs it for other, more important things.” Incorporating iron sources, such as eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, and small amounts of meat, supports hair health as well.
Other anti-inflammatory foods include omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, which Krieger says also keeps your skin moist by contributing to the formation of nice, plump membranes. The cooking show host and cookbook author suggests a meal loaded with vitamin A and omega-3 of lentils and red peppers with a side of dark green leafy vegetables topped with salmon.
Cole suggests paying a visit to the doctor to get data on any vitamin deficiencies or abundances. “Too much of a nutrient,” Krieger says, “can have the same effect as too little.” It’s also important to remember that when it comes to hair health and texture, genetics play a large role.
“If you were born with thinner hair,” Krieger says, “eating more salmon isn’t going to necessarily make it better than your genetics will allow, but it will optimize what you have. If you have a genetic predisposition to hair loss, staying optimally nourished can actually help modulate your genetic expression so that you minimize it.”
The quality of hair doesn’t define who you are, but it can be a reflection of a healthy lifestyle as a whole. “If you’re not getting enough sleep,” Krieger says, “if you’re totally stressed and overworked, if you’re not eating well, if you’re smoking … all of these things are going to affect your skin and your hair. It’s really just another reason to have a good, balanced life.”
Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @hotmessmia.
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