Like other B vitamins, biotin is an essential nutrient that’s almost inexplicably important. It helps the body break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. It is a cofactor in many enzyme-driven metabolic reactions. And, because biotin deficiency can lead to hair loss (and other effects like depression or an inflamed rash on the face), biotin has been associated with normal hair growth.
You may have noticed that the labels of many brands of shampoo and conditioner boast about added vitamins and nutrients, including biotin. It is true that biotin is essential for hair but biotin isn’t absorbed through the hair or skin in a way that will benefit the cells in the body. This means that a shampoo or conditioner with added vitamins won’t make your hair grow faster, healthier, or thicker. Vitamins must be taken orally to have an effect. Additionally, there’s not yet a clear, scientific consensus on whether or not biotin can help people with normal biotin levels grow more hair.
The Role of Biotin for Hair Growth
Biological processes are complex–all of them–and hair growth is no exception. Biotin plays a role in the infrastructure of keratin, the protein that makes up hair, skin, and nails. Visible hair is actually cells that have been keratinized, organized into strands, and pushed out of the hair follicle. As they’re pushed up and out toward the scalp, they dry, harden, and actually die because, as they get farther from the follicle, they don’t have access to blood flow and the nutrients it delivers.
Thus, it is inside the hair follicle where cells are alive and active and hair is formed; adding biotin to hair care products isn’t going to benefit those cells. Strands of hair have three layers–the medulla (the core), the cortex, and the cuticle. Healthy hair isn’t produced from the outside in, but rather the inside out. That’s why biotin added to shampoo or conditioner is little more than marketing-speak to spice up the label.
Hair, nail, and skin health are key indicators of nutritional status. Strong, shiny hair is often seen as a physical representation of health and youth; it’s no wonder it’s so desirable. Conversely, not only is thin hair viewed by some as an indication of poor nutritional status, in some cases that may actually be true. Inadequate biotin has been tied to hair loss and increased hair shedding is actually considered a symptom of biotin deficiency. Hair follicles divide more quickly than other cells and hair loss from a biotin deficiency can manifest as quickly as one week.
What Does the Research Say?
Thinning hair and hair loss are troubling conditions that may cause self-consciousness and affect self-esteem. The average person sheds 50-100 hairs a day and not everyone will replace those lost hairs. Though biotin deficiency is rare, evidence suggests that when inadequate biotin is to blame for hair loss, biotin supplementation may help stop the problem and strengthen the infrastructure of keratin.
In one exciting study, women with temporary thinning hair who were given a nutritional supplement containing biotin experienced a 52% increase in hair growth density over the course of 3-6 months of continued use.
Other Ways to Encourage Healthy Looking Hair
There are other steps you can take to promote shiny, healthy-looking hair.
- Cleanse your hair with gentle products to prevent stripping its natural oils.
- Style your hair at a low heat.
- Avoid dying or bleaching your hair to reduce breakage and drying.
- Eat a well-balanced diet to provide a complete spectrum of nutrition to keep your hair looking and feeling great.
How Much Biotin Should You Take?
At this time, there is no scientific consensus for daily biotin requirements. Estimates range from 30 micrograms up to 300 micrograms for adults. Biotin is water soluble and excess amounts are excreted from the body.
It’s also important to note that even if you’re getting enough biotin in your diet, your body might not be absorbing enough biotin because certain health conditions and foods can impede absorption of the micronutrient. Additionally, biotin doesn’t operate in a vacuum all by itself. It’s one of many important nutrients that work together to not only maintain healthy hair but good health in general.
Best Vitamins and Minerals for Hair Growth
Hair loss and thinning hair is a problem that affects many people. By the age of 35, about 66% of men will experience some type of hair loss or thinning. By their mid-50s, about 85% of men will have lost a significant amount of hair. Although it’s talked about less, hair loss affects women as well; about 40% of people who experience hair loss are women. And, because it’s generally considered more acceptable, or at least more common in men, hair loss can be especially distressing for women, causing depression and negatively affecting self-esteem.
Although full, shiny hair is viewed by many as an outward characteristic of youth and good genes, hair loss is not purely an issue of vanity. Rather, hair health can actually be a telling indicator of health status.
Vitamins for Hair Growth
Everything your body does is fueled by nutrition. Without enough vitamin B-12, your energy levels will suffer; bone health can be negatively affected if calcium levels are inadequate; your immune system can’t be strong without adequate selenium. Hair growth is no different and, in fact, several nutrients are absolutely critical for normal hair growth–vitamins A, C, biotin (B7), and niacin (B3), and the essential minerals iron, zinc, and iodine. Together, they provide the nutritional foundation for full, thick, shiny looking hair. If you’re short on the essential nutrients that support healthy hair, it won’t look and feel its best.
Adequate vitamin D is important for preventing hair loss, especially in women. In one study, females who experienced female pattern hair loss also had low levels of vitamin D.
Vitamin A deficiency accompanies a host of serious health consequences. Though rare, this deficiency also leads to dry hair, which is one of the first indications that you’re not getting enough vitamin A.
Biotin, or vitamin B7, is one of the B-complex vitamins. The relationship between biotin and hair growth is still unclear but it is known that adequate biotin is necessary for healthy hair growth. As with vitamin A deficiency, hair loss is usually one of the first signs of a biotin deficiency. The best way to avoid a biotin deficiency is to simply get enough in your diet. Avocados, bananas, legumes, and leafy greens are some of the best biotin food sources.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which means it helps mitigate free radical damage. Although many people associate free radical damage as some sort of internal-only process, hair follicle cells are also affected by free radical stress and it can start to show in hair strands, especially as you age. The free radical theory of aging (FRTA) holds that a lifetime of cellular damage from free radicals is what actually causes the effects commonly referred to as aging–the diminished cell and organ function associated with advancing years.
Antioxidants like vitamin C can help reduce oxidative damage. In hair follicles, this translates to preventing unnecessary and premature greying of the hair, as well as hair loss. Fortunately, a balanced diet can supply more than enough vitamin C. Some of the best sources are citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, and Brussels sprouts.
Vitamin E is another antioxidant that helps fight damage from free radicals. People who suffer from hair loss generally have fewer antioxidants present in the scalp and, thus, more evidence of oxidative damage in the skin. One small study of persons affected by alopecia (a type of hair loss where the immune system attacks hair follicles) found that oral supplementation with tocotrienol, a type of vitamin E, helped reduce oxidative stress in the scalp and encourage more hair growth.
Minerals for Hair Growth
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. It is extremely prevalent in both developing and developed countries and the causes and symptoms are many. Iron makes up part of the hemoglobin in blood cells and helps carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Unsurprisingly, several studies have tied iron status to hair loss. While it’s not necessary to screen all patients with alopecia for iron deficiency anemia, hair loss treatments are enhanced when poor iron status is addressed. Iron deficiency anemia is usually remedied with iron-fortified foods or iron supplements. The best iron rich foods include white beans, chocolate, and lentils.
Zinc deficiency has a well-documented history of contributing to hair loss. One study found that patients with alopecia had significantly lower concentrations of zinc in their blood. Unfortunately, it might not be inadequate zinc intake that contributes to hair loss. Rather, it seems patients with alopecia have trouble metabolizing and using zinc. Regardless, zinc supplementation is still useful for those with a low zinc status. Even better, many foods are an excellent source of zinc. Some of the best foods for zinc include garlic, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas.
Thyroid disruption can cause hair loss and iodine is necessary to support thyroid hormone production. Thyroid disorders have been observed in up to 28% of people with alopecia. Without enough thyroid hormones, hair follicles stay in the “rest” phase (telogen) of the hair cycle, rather than the growing phase (anagen).
Sea vegetables like kelp, kombu, and nori seaweed provide the most consistent iodine concentrations but they’re not very popular among westerners. If you don’t find them palatable, iodine supplementation might be the solution to getting the iodine necessary to support the production of thyroid hormones.
Other Common Causes of Hair Loss
There are many causes of hair loss, some include stress, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, genetics, and poor hair maintenance. There are even many diseases where hair loss is a primary symptom. The most common form of hair thinning is androgenetic alopecia (AGA or male/female pattern baldness) and it affects both men and women, but the other causes–telogen effluvium, alopecia areata, ringworm, scarring alopecia, and others–are not uncommon.
As a side note, hair loss isn’t the only problem that can arise from AGA. For men, androgenetic alopecia is closely associated with coronary heart disease, enlarged prostate, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and prostate cancer. In women, androgenetic alopecia comes with an increased risk of developing polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
Abuse of the hair and poor hair maintenance can also lead to hair loss. Excessive heat can damage hair, leaving it brittle and prone to breakage. Styling and tying your hair too tight stresses the hair follicles and may lead to a type of hair loss called traction alopecia. Ponytails, braids, and even turbans are often to blame; the solution is simple–stop binding the hair so tightly.
A Holistic Approach to Hair Care
Strong, shiny-looking hair begins within. Good nutrition is key to supporting healthy hair growth and mitigating diet-related hair loss. If you have trouble getting a complete spectrum of nutrition in your diet, you may want to consider vitamin and mineral supplementation. Antioxidants are also important as evidence suggests scalp inflammation may be associated with hair loss. If you’re losing your hair, work with your trusted healthcare provider to discover the cause. There are many therapies to address thinning hair and identifying the root cause (no pun intended) is key to implementing a successful solution.