We gals put our hair through the wringer. Coloring it, blowing it, straightening it… the list of treatments and daily maintenance is a mile long (I’ve even had my share of perms—hello, 80s!). And, the same is true for our nails with acrylic extensions, gel overlays, silk wraps and infills. Not to mention regular filing and polishing. We spend a lot of time and money trying to make them look better, but do we understand what they can teach us about their health?
For starters, the strength and growth of your hair and nails can give you hints about your overall well-being and whether or not you’re getting enough vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fat. But, how often do you look at your plate when you want to improve these aspects of your appearance? Today, I want to change that. So, I’m going to give you a better understanding of how nutrients play a role in hair and nail issues. We’ll also cover some food-focused solutions that can provide better, long-term results than a new beauty product.
Understanding Hair Growth
How fast and thick your hair grows depends somewhat on your genetics, but it also depends on your hormone levels. At any one time, a strand of hair is in one of four phases: the growing phase, the regression phase, the resting phase or the shedding phase (we lose about 100 hairs per day).
During puberty and pregnancy, estrogen levels are increasing or at their highest and your hair spends more time in the growing phase. After having a baby, your hair spends more time in the shedding phase (it balances out!). Once menopause hits, hair spends less time in the growing phase and more in the shedding phase, partly due to lower estrogen levels, but also due to increasing androgens (male hormones). Thyroid hormones also play a significant role. Hair loss is often a sign that thyroid hormones are out of balance.
In addition to genes and hormones, increased stress levels and a lack of nutritious foods in your diet can be hair’s nemeses. These issues not only deteriorate the thickness, texture, shimmer and strength of your hair, but they can increase the length of time your hair is in the shedding phase.
This is why your hair may feel like it’s falling out more rapidly when your diet isn’t up to snuff or when you’ve been through a stressful period. Interestingly enough, there’s a delayed reaction. So, increased hair shedding might not become noticeable until three to six months following a stressful or unhealthy eating period.
Understanding Nail Growth
Adequate nutrition and hydration are the big determinants of nail health. Nails grow about 0.1 millimeters per day on average. They grow more in the summer, less in the winter, more during the day and less at night. And, nails grow faster on your dominant hand. The appearance of your nails can be indicators of whether or not you’re getting enough nutrients and good ole H2O in your day. Ridges and white spots, for example, are often a sign of iron deficiency.
How to Improve Hair and Nail Health With Food
Get your grocery list ready! Adding these plant-based foods regularly may help remedy your hair and nail woes.
Improving the strength of hair and nails
- Almonds. Almonds are not only high in protein, but they’re also loaded with biotin—an important vitamin, which helps break down and use proteins in the body, including those responsible for building strong help hair and nails. They’re also a great source of vitamin E, which can contribute to thick, lustrous hair and prevent hair loss. Almonds are also rich in stress-reducing magnesium. As I just mentioned, less stress equals less hair loss and stronger nails. Whole almonds, almond butter and even almond flour are wonderful protein-rich additions to your meals.
- Soybeans. Since they’re high in iron, eating more soybeans can help prevent hair loss and repair thin, ridged or spotted nails. Other rich sources of iron include lentils, spinach, sesame seeds and chickpeas. Soybeans are also loaded with protein, which increases keratin for strong nails and hair. Tempeh, miso and edamame are the least processed forms of soy. Although I love integrating tofu into my diet once a week, always get organic and non-GMO soy, if you can.
- Blueberries. These blue beauties are one of the richest sources of antioxidants. They help prevent free radical damage, which has been linked to a flaky scalp, brittle hair and weak nails. Of course, blueberries are wonderful fresh but you can also buy them frozen (or freeze your fresh ones when they’re in season). They’re a delish addition to smoothies, oatmeal, topped with cashew cream or on their own!
- Papaya. A medium papaya has 224% of your daily recommended intake of vitamin C, which is crucial for preventing hair breakage as it strengthens each and every strand. Add it to fruit salads, juice it or put it into a smoothie. Strong hair never tasted so good!
Moisturizes nail bed and adds shine, color and fullness to hair
- Flaxseeds. These fabulous seeds are high in healthy omega-3 fats, making them the perfect fix for dry cuticles and weak nails. They also add moisture, shine and fullness to your mane. Other great sources of omega-3’s include chia seeds, walnuts and soybeans. Add ground flaxseed meal to oatmeal, smoothies and baked goods. Just 2 tablespoons a day of ground flaxseeds or 2 teaspoons of flax oil will help you meet your daily requirements.
- Shiitake Mushrooms. Pantothenic acid (aka vitamin B5) helps to nourish your hair and give it luster. Shiitake mushrooms are one of the world’s best-known sources of pantothenic acid. Just one serving provides more than 50% of your daily intake! They’re also loaded with copper, which helps maintain natural hair color. Enjoy these magnificent mushrooms in stir-fries and soups or toss them with some olive oil and sea salt before baking them till crisp. Perfect for pasta or salads!
- Sweet Potatoes. Their orange hue hints at the sweet potato’s high beta-carotene content. Eating these root veggies and other beta-carotene-rich foods on a regular basis increases the natural oils in your scalp, which keeps hair shiny and healthy looking. Carrots, pumpkin, mango, spinach and kale are also great sources of beta-carotene (the chlorophyll in dark, leafy greens overpowers and hides the orange pigment).
Increasing growth of hair and nails
- Sesame seeds. Zinc is responsible for not only strong nails and hair, but also for increasing their growth. Even your eyelash growth and strength benefit from more zinc in your diet. Sesame seeds are one of the richest sources, with pumpkin seeds, lentils, chickpeas and cashews close behind. Tahini (sesame seed butter) is a staple in my house. I spread it on toast and add it to my homemade hummus and salad dressings.