~ Amy Meyers, MD
A full, glossy head of hair; clear, unwrinkled skin; and long, strong nails, not only have aesthetic and social value, but also indicate general good health. They reflect the extent to which the natural aging process is causing the decline in the production of the structural proteins keratin and collagen, and the resulting deterioration of the body’s connective tissues, bones, vital organs, and even blood vessel walls. Unhealthy hair, skin, and nails (HSN) are thus often symptoms of various underlying chronic conditions. While a complete discussion of all causes and solutions to these seemingly cosmetic challenges is beyond the scope of this article, below are a number of considerations that can help you look and feel better.
Hair: Keratin, a protein made of dead cells, is the tough fibrous protein that comprises hair, which is anchored in the skin by 100,000 to 350,000 hair follicles. Within the hair bulbs at the base of hair follicles, blood vessels both nourish cells that divide and grow to create the hair shaft, and deliver hormones that modify hair structure and growth throughout life. Hair growth occurs in three phases: (1) anagen (growth phase)- lasts several years for each hair strand; (2) catagen (transitional phase) – growth slows and follicles shrink over several weeks; and (3) telogen (resting phase) – hair growth stops and detaches from the hair follicle while a new hair begins the anagen phase and pushes out the old hair over several months. One-half-inch per month is the average hair growth rate.
Skin: The body’s largest organ with its own microbiome, skin provides the functions of protection, sensation, and regulation. The main skin layers are the: (1) epidermis – the outermost layer, which itself has four or five layers; consists mainly of keratin protein; creates skin tone and provides a waterproof barrier; (2) dermis – consists of two layers of connective tissue that comprise a mesh of elastin and collagen protein fibers; contains blood and lymph vessels, nerves, hair follicles and sweat glands; and (3) hypodermis – comprised of fat and tissue that connects to bones and muscles.
Nails: Composed largely of keratin, nails are structurally modified hair. They are vestigial claws that aid in protecting against finger and toe trauma, grasping, and manipulating small objects.
Causes of Unhealthy HSN
Unhealthy HSN can result from: (1) nutrient deficiencies; (2) toxin overload and/or a sluggish liver; (3) excess stress; (4) inadequate sleep (less than 7 hours per night); (5) hormone imbalances (estrogen, progesterone, thyroid); (6) bacterial/fungal intestinal infections (SIBO, candida, CDIF); (7) leaky gut and gut inflammation; (8) build-up of free radicals/oxidative stress; and (9) medication side effects.
Supportive Nutrition & Lifestyle Choices
As with all chronic health conditions, healing begins with an alkalizing, nutrient rich diet that
excludes foods that cause inflammation (including gluten, dairy, most grains, simple carbohydrates, refined vegetable oils and animal fats) or sensitivities/allergic responses (commonly nuts, eggs, shellfish, corn, soy, conventional beef/pork/lamb, caffeine, high FODMAPs, salicylates, sulfites, and sugar). An anti-inflammatory diet includes higher levels of monounsaturated fats (soaked nuts and seeds, olive oil), omega-3 fatty acids (especially from certain wild, cold-water fish), and as many high-fiber, organic, raw (unprocessed) foods as possible, such as low-sugar fruits, sprouted/boiled/ fermented/pressure cooked legumes, and a large variety of dark green and cruciferous vegetables.
When detoxification pathways operate inadequately, toxins seep out of the skin and undermine
HSN health. Minimizing environmental toxins (found in mainstream house cleaners, laundry detergents, and body care products), and daily consumption of adequate amounts of alkalizing water and detoxifying foods, can greatly support the removal of harmful toxins through excretory systems and organs.
Supportive Dietary Supplements
Biotin & Other B-Complex Vitamins: Safe, water-soluble biotin is critical to the metabolism of amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose. Some limited research and testimonials support biotin supplementation to address the common results of biotin deficiency, which include brittle nails, hair loss, and skin rashes. High biotin intake, however, can interfere with hormone tests, including those for thyroid hormone and vitamin D, and can thus cause false normal or abnormal results (especially for Graves disease and other forms of hyperthyroidism). Since vitamin B12 and folate are important to red blood cell production and oxygen transportation to nail cells, deficiencies can cause nail discoloration.
Collagen Protein: As the most abundant protein in the body, collagen supports hair, skin, nails, bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments. Aged skin is well known to have reduced levels of collagen types I and III. Wrinkled and sagging skin results from slowed production of new collagen fibers, increased stiffening, breaking, loosening, and unraveling of existing collagen fibers, and the fraying and lost elasticity of the elastin network. In a 2019 systematic review of 11 randomized, placebo-controlled studies involving over 800 patients, researchers concluded that preliminary results are promising for the safe short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for skin aging and wound healing. They further noted that future studies are needed to determine optimal dosing for various medical uses.
Detoxifying Nutrients: Excretory organs overloaded with toxins can generate liver spots, wrinkles, flabby skin, and overall poor organ function that can also negatively impact hair and nails. Key detoxifying nutrients include glutathione, milk thistle, stinging nettles, curcumin from turmeric, dandelion, burdock root, and those found in cruciferous vegetables, artichokes, caraway seeds, oranges, garlic, and onions.
Hyaluronic Acid (HA): HA is classified as a glycosaminoglycan (GAG), a long polysaccharide made of glucuronic acid and glucosamine. While it draws up to 1000 times its weight in water per molecule, HA quality and production in the body declines with aging. Oral HA supplementation provides intense moisture for all soft tissues, including the skin/scalp, nails, eyes, and joints. One patented, clinically proven liquid HA is particularly effective because it is well-absorbed and works quickly.
Iron: Iron anemia (hemoglobin < 12 g/dl) is common in women suffering hair loss, yet researchers continue to debate whether low stored iron levels (serum ferritin) actually trigger this health condition. Cells require iron for their supply of adequate oxygen, which in turn is required for healthy nails. An iron deficiency can thus damage nail shape and appearance. The body best absorbs iron found in animal protein and taking plant-sourced iron with chelating vitamin C enhances its absorption in the intestines.
MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane): This sulfur compound, naturally found in humans, treats inflammation and pain when taken orally or applied topically. Sulfur is a significant component of keratin and is antifungal and antibacterial. While research results are inconclusive, user testimonials support taking MSM orally to enhance hair growth. Sulfur has also been widely used to address various dermatological conditions, including rosacea, acne, seborrheic dermatitis, and dandruff.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oil): Omega-3 essential fatty acids in therapeutic doses protect the skin from the sun, keep it hydrated, and help prevent wrinkles. They also help combat psoriasis and eczema, and enhance nail shine and lubrication. Some studies have demonstrated that omega-3s, particularly their DHA component, promote hair growth.
Probiotics: The microflora of the gut are proven critical supporters of the immune, neurological, and endocrine systems. As such, researchers have established that they are supportive in reducing eczema and psoriasis, particularly in children.
Silicon (OSA/orthosilicic acid): This trace mineral readily bonds with oxygen to form silica (also known as silicon dioxide) and is thus rarely found in nature in pure form. Silica is not well absorbed, but clinically proven, patented choline-stabilized OSA (ch-OSA) is particularly effective for: (1) hair – reduces hair loss and increases luster; (2) skin – optimizes creation of endogenous Type I collagen and contributes to improved skin strength and elasticity; and (3) nails – strengthens them since it is their predominant mineral component. Good food and herbal sources of silica include horsetail, bamboo, green beans, unrefined grains, and meat.
Vitamins A-C-D-E: Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that is critical to immunity and the maintenance of skin health (including acne prevention/treatment) and moisture throughout the body because it promotes healthy skin cell production.
Healthy skin contains high concentrations of vitamin C, which is well-known for reducing signs of aging by stimulating collagen synthesis, providing antioxidant protection against UV-induced damage, and supporting wound healing.
Vitamin D promotes hair growth by stimulating hair follicle growth. It is critical to skin protection and rejuvenation in that it supports the skin’s immune system, helps prevent premature aging by destroying free radicals, and contributes to skin cell growth and repair.
The fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin E helps prevent skin cancer, UV photoaging, scarring, promotes wound healing, and is frequently used to treat eczema.
Zinc: This essential mineral is critical for maintenance of the immune system. It is instrumental in treating acne and promoting nail growth, and a severe zinc deficiency can cause hair loss.
Supportive Natural Beauty Treatments
While limited space disallows a full discussion here, a wide range of topical applications support healthy HSN, including: aloe vera; argan, black castor, jojoba, sea buckthorn, tea tree, and vitamin E oils; honey; niacinamide; and SPF protection. Aestheticians and trichologists (dermatologists specializing in hair and scalp conditions) also offer non-invasive, relatively affordable avenues to healthier and younger looking skin and hair.
The statements in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, are for educational purposes only, and are not intended to take the place of a physician’s advice.
Submitted by Erika Dworkin, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition®, Owner of the Manchester Parkade Health Shoppe (860.646.8178), 378 Middle Turnpike West, Manchester, CT, www.cthealthshop.com, nutrition specialists trusted since 1956. Erika is available to speak to groups.
All statements in this article are based on scientific evidence, clinical practice, or customer testimonials, and references are available upon request.