Natural Foods Merchandiser

Heads up: Herbs and supps help hair

It's happening. Hair is committing suicide all around us. Men's. Women's. Doesn't matter. That hair is determined to take its own life in a dramatic jump from the top of the dome to someone's feet. Lots of someones'.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, two out of three men will suffer from some form of baldness, as will one out of four women. The cause can be hereditary, as in the case of male or female pattern baldness, or environmental, such as sun damage or too much time in the chlorinated water at the local pool.

Do not despair. You can help. There are natural products out there that, while not a cure-all by any means, can make a difference. And, as a bonus, you might even be able to make a huge difference in someone's self-image as well.

Get the word out, and hair loss products can be flying off the shelves, like, um, hair off a head.

The Chinese way
"It's not that a switch goes off and hair has to come out at a certain time," says Joel Harvey, co-founder of Berkeley, Calif.-based Dr. Shen's Chinese Medicines and an acupuncturist and herbalist at Shen Clinic. Harvey is part of a long line of practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who have been working with herbs for centuries to combat hair loss.

In particular, he shou wu (Polygonum multiflorum), or fo-ti as it's known in the West, has a known effect on hair. In fact, the Chinese believe it can restore the original color of hair. While Harvey says he's not so sure about that, he does know that it retards hair graying and thinning.

According to Harvey, he shou wu is considered a blood and jing tonic. "Blood means blood, but it's also the nourishing and cleansing fluids of the body," he says. "The jing is an energy that has to do with maturation and growth." Deficiencies in either can cause hair loss and premature graying.

Scott Bias, formulator and founder of Fountain Valley, Calif.-based Paradise Herbs and Essentials, agrees, and says that although women often are thought to be blood-deficient, men can be, too. In fact, traditional Chinese formulas such as 7 Treasures for Beautiful Whiskers combine he shou wu with dong quai, an herb primarily used in women-specific formulas. The combination "nourishes the blood and essence," according to Bias.

As for he shou wu alone, Bias says the nice thing about it is, "It's a very, very safe herb when taken in its prepared form, and can be taken over a long period of time."

Interestingly, practitioners such as Harvey believe that even when there is a genetic component to hair loss, there is still hope. While we may be born with a similar genetic code for blood vessels as our grandfather, for instance, we have the ability to work with the hand we're dealt. "So even in male pattern baldness we feel that there are techniques that can work to minimize the effect of, say, thin, fragile blood vessels," Harvey says.

And, even if your customers' hair doesn't turn back to its pitch-black tint, their quality of life can be improved. "Like so many other things about Chinese medicine … very often people will come for one complaint, we'll treat that one complaint, and we may or may not help that one complaint, but very often people will say that other things got better," Harvey says. "One could take he shou wu for premature hair loss and find that they get an erection more easily or they feel younger or they feel more energetic."

The Western way—herbs For those with male pattern baldness, "There are some wonderful herbs out there that can definitely benefit," Bias says. "Saw palmetto and borage oil are two plants that seem to be very effective."

A study published in 2002 in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that men given a saw palmetto and beta-sitosterol (a phytosterol) preparation had significantly improved hair growth. A study published in 1997 in the Journal of Investigational Dermatology found that borage oil (a good source of gamma linolenic acid) helped treat MPB and other hair disorders.

Both saw palmetto and borage oil work in a similar way to finasteride, a prescription drug for MPB. Bias says men may be afraid to use finasteride "because there can be some sexual side effects, whereas the side effect with saw palmetto is maybe a little queasiness."

The Western way—minerals
One of the main minerals for hair health is silica. Albert Trujillo, national educator for Burnaby, British Colombia-based Flora Inc., says, "It's very important to maintain the strength and rigidity of the outer layers both in the vegetable and animal kingdoms." He says silica's natural rigidity works the same way for our hair as it does for bamboo.

"Nature made it so that we can't take a rock and suck on it and absorb the nutrients out of it, but that's where all the minerals are," Trujillo says. "Nature made it so that plants, through their roots, absorb the minerals, and we in turn eat plants and get our vitamins and minerals from them."

However, silica itself is too abrasive to ingest, so ways must be found to get the mineral into a more palatable state. Frequently, horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is used as a source. At Flora, the silica is water extracted from the plant.

Trujillo says for the majority of people, lost hair is simply breaking off because it is weak. "So, if you get the proper nutrients, then your hair will be more resistant and not break off as easily."

The Indian way
Bias says an Ayurvedic herb called bhringaraj (eclipta alba) is known for promoting the growth of head hair. "[Bhringaraj] is a Sanskrit name that's translated 'ruler of the hair,'" he says. "It's a pretty phenomenal herb because it seems to play a key role with the liver" as a detoxifier.

Bhringaraj is also mixed with amala ( emblica officinalis) in an oil that has been used for centuries for making the hair black and luxuriant, he says. In addition, bhringaraj calms the mind and promotes sound sleep, which has been shown to be effective against balding.

Blood tonics also occur in Ayurvedic medicine, and ashwagandha (withania somnifera) "is a great herb for people who are overworked or stressed out. And, of course, stress plays a huge role with the hair, and I've found that blood tonics are really crucial for hair on the head," Bias says, "especially if the hair is dry and brittle."

Remember, though, as Trujillo says, hair health, like overall health, depends on attention to proper nutrition and to overall cell health. "I think at the very base, the grassroots of [hair loss], it would be deficiency. Make sure you have yourself covered. Make sure that you're getting the basic nutrients."

And—if for no other reason than that it feels good—massaging the head is great for your hair. Harvey recommends massage to stimulate chi flow to the region, while Trujillo notes: "You need to deeply stimulate the cells because there are nerves attached, and you need to stimulate blood flow to the hair follicle. It is an organ. It is alive." And your customers want it to stay that way.

Color by the numbers

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, blondes—the natural ones—might not really have the most fun, but they do have the most hair on average: 140,000 hairs per head. Brunettes come in second with 105,000 hairs on average, followed by redheads at 90,000 hairs. However, redheads are in the lead when it comes to hair thickness—their tresses are more than twice as thick as blonde hair.


Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 5/p. 30, 34

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