Have you ever considered your zinc levels when trying to identify the cause of your hair loss?
Few of us have - yet zinc is an incredibly important nutrient for your overall health, and particularly for the health of your hair.
On this page, I'll look at why zinc is so crucial, how to tell if your levels are low, and how to ensure you're getting enough zinc in your diet.
NOTE: this information should not be seen as medical advice. Please speak to your doctor if you are experiencing hair loss and before taking any supplements.
We obtain zinc through food and require a regular, steady intake. This is because our bodies do not store it.
That being said, too MUCH zinc can be as harmful as not enough, so it's very important to speak to your doctor before trying to boost your zinc level with supplements.
It helps heal wounds and reduces inflammation.
It's needed to make protein and is necessary for growth and development.
It supports the immune system and is needed to maintain our senses of taste and smell.
It appears to reduce the severity of colds and helps us get rid of them more quickly, although scientists are still not sure quite why this is!
And - of particular interest to those of us affected by hair loss - it is essential for healthy hair growth.
These may include...
There are a number of causes of zinc deficiency.
The main one is simply not consuming enough zinc in your diet.
But there are other factors that can make zinc deficiency more likely, either by making the absorption of zinc difficult, or by causing too much zinc to be expelled by the body. This, then, creates the need for a higher zinc intake than usual.
Risk factors include:
Older people are more likely to be zinc deficient, with research showing that 35-45% of adults over the age of 60 have zinc intakes below the estimated average requirements.
A true zinc deficiency can only be identified by your doctor, although diagnosis isn't always straight-forward. This is because zinc is distributed throughout the body in tiny amounts, making it hard to detect.
Doctors often use a blood plasma test to look for a deficiency, although research has shown that the concentration of zinc in the hair is a more reliable indicator.
This means that a blood test could show your levels are adequate, whilst a subclinical (hard to detect) deficiency may be present.
For this reason, doctors often look at 'the big picture' when diagnosing zinc deficiency and will take your risk factors into account too.
Experts suggest that anywhere from 150 to 240 mcg/g of hair is normal. If your level is less than 70 mcg/g, then you would be considered deficient.
Whilst not 100% reliable, there is actually a test you can use at home to see if you are deficient in zinc. It's known as the 'Zinc Taste Test', 'Zinc Assay Test', 'Zinc Challenge' or 'Zinc Tally'.It involves taking a spoonful of a liquid zinc supplement such as Liquid Zinc Assay (Amazon) and assessing how that spoonful tastes to you.
This is a popular test because it's so cheap and easy to administer at home, but experts warn that other factors - besides zinc deficiency - can influence the way we perceive the flavor of the liquid.
So it's still a good idea to speak to your doctor to arrange for formal diagnostic testing.
Zinc is a key element in the hair growth cycle and is needed by the follicles to produce new shafts.
If you don't have enough zinc, you may experience telogen effluvium, where you shed hair from all over the scalp.
Zinc deficiency can also cause your hair to be brittle, dry, fragile and prone to breakage. It may even lead to loss of pigment. These changes can affect the eyelashes and eyebrows too.
But there are many other ways in which a deficiency of zinc can affect your hair, since zinc influences so many functions throughout the body.
Whilst zinc deficiency may not be the cause of alopecia areata, researchers have found that sufferers find their symptoms get worse when their zinc levels are low.
Lower serum zinc level existed in patients with (alopecia areata) and correlated inversely with disease duration, severity of (alopecia areata), and its resistance to therapies. Therefore, assessment of serum zinc level in patients with (alopecia areata) appears useful as a marker of severity, disease duration, and resistance to therapies. Accordingly, zinc supplements may provide a therapeutic benefit.
Zinc affects the hormones, too, and is needed to make the thyroid hormones. So a deficiency in zinc can lead to hypothyroidism, a very common cause of hair loss.
In an unfortunate vicious circle, thyroid hormones are needed by the body to help with the absorption of zinc, so hypothyroidism itself can lead to zinc deficiency!
The importance of zinc in treating hypothyroidism-related hair loss is highlighted by this research, published in the International Journal of Trichology (India). In the study, a patient with thyroid problems was treated with thyroid hormone supplements.
Interestingly, her hair loss continued until zinc supplements were also administered.
The report describes how the thyroid function in 9 patients with low zinc levels was improved when zinc supplements were given, and concludes:
An evaluation for features of zinc deficiency, which is often under-recognized, is warranted in all cases of hypothyroidism.
Zinc plays a part in how our bodies process iron, so zinc deficiency can lead to iron deficiency anemia (Source: Serum zinc levels in patients with iron deficiency anemia).
Iron is another nutrient critical to hair growth and too little iron can lead to hair loss.
If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia then it's important to discuss your zinc levels with your doctor to establish if a zinc supplement may be necessary.
| RELATED: Iron and Hair Loss
Hair loss is a common symptom of PCOS.
Researchers have looked at the benefits of zinc supplements for PCOS sufferers and found that their hair loss decreased after 8 weeks of supplementation. (So, too, had their hirsutism - hair growth in places it wasn't wanted!).
If you suffer from PCOS, then you may wish to speak to your doctor to see if zinc supplements would benefit you.
Interesting research published in the 2013 issue of the Annals of Dermatology looked at the amount of zinc in the blood serum of 4 types of hair loss patients, including a group affected by female pattern hair loss.
Whilst those with the lowest zinc levels were patients with alopecia areata and telogen effluvium, women with female pattern hair loss were also found to have lower levels of zinc than those in the control group.
Researchers certainly seems to have established the importance of zinc in healthy hair growth - but how do we go about improving our zinc status?
It can be tempting to focus on eating as many zinc-rich foods as possible whilst simultaneously loading up on zinc supplements.
This, however, is NOT a good idea.
Too MUCH zinc can be harmful... and it can lead to even MORE hair loss!
The National Institutes of Health recommends an upper limit of 40mg a day for adults.
I have heard from visitors to this website who have 'overdosed' on zinc. They described feeling very sick and experiencing a strong metallic aftertaste.
Zinc supplements can also interfere with certain medications, so it's VERY important you don't take them without talking to your doctor first.
Our bodies are designed to thrive on wholesome, natural foods, so it's always a good idea to address nutritional deficiencies through the diet before reaching for supplements (unless your doctor suggests otherwise!).
A normal diet SHOULD provide all the zinc we need.
The problem, however, is that fad diets and counting calories can leave us consuming less zinc than necessary.
What's more, the way in which certain foods interact with each other plays a part in how we absorb their nutrients.
So if you're concerned that low zinc levels may be contributing to your hair loss, it's worth taking a good look at exactly what you are eating.
In addition to consuming a variety of zinc-rich foods, you need to make sure you are absorbing enough zinc from them.
Some foods contain antioxidant compounds called phytates. Phytates bind with zinc - and other minerals your body needs - and stop you from absorbing them properly.
Phytates are found in foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and cereals.
Thus, the 'bioavailabiltiy' of zinc - the amount available for our bodies to use - is lower in plant-based foods than in animal foods.
In order to continue consuming these healthy foods without affecting your zinc absorption, it's a good idea to soak them before use.
In addition to reducing the binding effect of the phytates and therefore 'unlocking' the nutrients, soaking these foods improves their digestibility in general..
Simply place the nuts, legumes etc into a bowl of cold water and leave them to soak for a few hours, or preferably overnight.
Ideally, you should then drain them and leave them to sit until 'sprouts' begin to form - this may happen within as little as 24 hours. Be sure to rinse/drain them every 12 hours or so in the meantime.
The foods are then ready to be consumed or cooked, giving you the maximum benefits from them.
| RELATED: Soaking and Sprouting Beans, Nuts, Seeds, and Grains (external link)
Soaking and sprouting phytate-containing foods is particularly important if you are vegetarian, or eat little meat.
Vegetarians need up to 50% more zinc in their diets than meat-eaters in order to absorb enough to meet their needs.
There's a direct relationship between your protein intake and zinc, with dietary protein helping you absorb zinc more efficiently.
Animal protein is the most effective, so it's a good idea to eat zinc-rich foods - or take a zinc supplement - with a meal containing meat (if your diet allows, of course).
Although milk is a high protein 'food', it actually hinders zinc uptake.
This is because the casein in milk binds with the zinc, making it hard to absorb. It's best to avoid consuming milk at the same time as a zinc supplement or zinc-rich meal.
Whilst consuming iron-fortified foods seems to have no significant effect on zinc absorption, the use of iron supplements may cause you to absorb less than you need.
Calcium, too, is believed by some experts to block absorption, although research into this has produced mixed results.
This underlines the importance of discussing the use of supplements with your doctor in order to avoid these negative interactions.
Unfortunately, no one seems to have had much success with applying zinc topically (to the skin).
There seem to be reports online of various potions containing zinc that people have created (and sometimes marketed) to combat hair loss. However, I have found no reports of any of them actually working for an extended period of time.
If you want to try topical zinc, the best option may be to use a zinc shampoo. These are normally used to control dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis.
A 'significant net increase in total hair counts' was noted for those using the shampoo. This improvement was recorded as having lasted the entire 26 week duration of the study.
Whilst this may sound promising, the report also noted that only those carrying out the study could see the improvements in the hair - the patients themselves could not.
Nevertheless, there is no harm in trying one of these shampoos - at the very least, they tend to improve scalp health, which is always an important consideration when you're battling hair loss.
Zinc is - without a doubt - critical to healthy hair growth.
The best way to obtain zinc - aside from supplementation recommended by your doctor - is through a healthy diet, taking the steps described in this article to absorb as much zinc from food as possible.
Zinc supplements should ONLY be used on your doctor's advice - and the only way to be sure you have a deficiency is to see your doctor or trichologist (who will then refer you to a doctor if necessary).