Aine McAteer
There was a time in my early teenage years where I was nicknamed "Wiry." It wasn't because I was strong and slim, as the phrase might imply; rather, it was because my hair looked like wire that had rusted and could be used to scrub pots clean! To add to my dilemma, my grandmother, although endowed with many skills for which I'm more than willing to give her credit, considered herself a hairdresser—and my hairstyles from my youth are sufficient testimony to prove that she was anything but.

I was obsessed with hair as a child, and perhaps this was in some way related to the sad state of affairs on my own head. All my dolls were endowed with long, luscious locks that I would spend hours brushing and styling. I was severely envious of any of my friends who had long hair or were taken to a proper hairdresser who gave them some semblance of a hairstyle.

In those days, it never dawned on me that what was sprouting out of my head had any connection with what was entering my mouth. It was years later, when I was put on medication to treat my underactive thyroid and opted instead to change my diet, that I started to notice some gradual and subtle changes that delighted me. In addition to having so much more energy and vitality, my locks not only started to grow faster, but also developed a softness and sheen that was quite uncharacteristic. Instead of the frizz that had earned me my nickname, I was developing a lovely curl, and slowly but surely, I started to get compliments for my long and beautiful locks.

I will confess that my commitment to adhering to a healthy diet and lifestyle has much to do with the fact that I want to grow old gracefully and beautifully with as little cosmetic intervention as possible. One's hair, or lack thereof, is a great indicator of a person's overall state of health—in fact, there is a diagnostic therapy often used in alternative medical practices that analyzes the hair to get an overall reading of a person's nutritional history and health condition.

True beauty is something that emanates from the inside out, and a diet of nutrient-rich food is a major consideration in overall health and the health of our hair. There are many factors that influence hair health and also many ways that you can ensure healthy, glossy locks right into old age. I'll tell you how.

Learn what factors influence your hair
Diet: I think I've given sufficient testimony that diet plays a major role in the health and beauty of our hair. Before I changed to a more balanced diet, I could sit for hours in the classroom picking at my split ends. Now, I can search my entire head and there's not one to be found! One of the main factors influencing hair health is a deficiency of good-quality protein and iron. Protein is essential for cell growth and repair, while iron produces hemoglobin in the blood, which carries oxygen for growth and repair of all body cells. Excess sugar in the diet robs the body of minerals vital to hair health.

Hormones: As women go through hormonal changes during and after menopause, or after pregnancy, they often experience hair loss. Once hormonal levels become balanced, this loss will be halted. One of the most common causes of hair loss is low thyroid function, so if you're experiencing hair loss, it's a good idea to have your thyroid levels checked by an endocrinologist.

Smoking: Smoking destroys vitamin C, which is an essential nutrient for nourishing hair follicles and clearing toxins from the body. Nicotine causes blood vessels to constrict, making it harder for nutrients to reach the skin and hair and for waste to be eliminated.

Genetic factors: Male pattern baldness can be passed on genetically, as well as other predispositions that can affect overall health and the health of the hair.

Medications: Drugs such as those used in cancer treatment (chemotherapy), anesthetics, anticoagulants (used to thin the blood) and oral contraceptives can cause temporary hair loss. It's important to consult with your doctor before making any changes to your prescribed medications. Dietary changes and properly prescribed natural supplements can greatly improve hair and scalp conditions.

Products: Many of the haircare products on the market contain toxic chemicals and dyes that can cause inflammation, dry the scalp and damage the hair follicles. Chemicals can enter the body through the skin and scalp and can be absorbed into the bloodstream, where they can build up and result in other health problems.

Environment: Environmental factors such as air conditioning and indoor heating can dry out the hair and leave it lackluster. Treated water in swimming pools can also dry the hair and irritate the scalp, as can overexposure to sun. So, if you're in a hot climate, it's a good idea to keep your hair covered if you're outdoors a lot.

Processing: Excess blow-drying, straightening, curling, perming, bleaching and dyeing can give you instant gratification, but over a period of time, it also dries out and damages the hair.

Stress: When you're under stress, it's easy to let basic health habits go. Unfortunately, this results in poor health, which is reflected in the health of the hair. Tension in the scalp restricts the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the hair follicles.

What to feed your hair to make it healthy
Since diet plays such a vital role in the health and beauty of the hair, here is a list of food and nutrients that are particularly nourishing.

Seaweed: My friend once told me that he was starting to go gray, but after a few months of having a daily dose of seaweed, he had completely regained his haircolor. Seaweed contains a wealth of nutrients vital to overall health and healthy hair, including iodine, iron, calcium, magnesium, niacin, zinc, sodium, potassium and a range of vitamins. Seaweed also has the ability to bind with toxins and expel them from the body, keeping your body cleansed from the inside out. As an alternative, you could take a kelp supplement so you still get the benefits of the seaweed.

Leafy greens: Leafy greens contain large amounts of vitamins A and C, which the body uses to make sebum, which is secreted by the hair follicles and keeps the hair glossy and in good condition. Greens are also rich in minerals, including iron vital to hair health.

Pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts: As well as being good sources of Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils, pumpkin seeds and Brazil nuts are good sources of zinc and selenium, which are vital nutrients for hair health.

Brown rice: I mentioned earlier the importance of good-quality protein for hair health, and I recommend leaning toward vegetable protein in the form of grains and beans for optimum nutrition. Brown rice is also a good source of the stress-relieving B vitamins.

Beans: Beans are an excellent vegetarian source of protein, essential to hair health. They're also a good source of iron, folic acid and B vitamins, nutrients necessary for healthy, shiny hair. Combine with whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa to make a complete protein.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs): As the name implies, these are essential for the structure of every cell membrane as well as healthy joints, circulation, heart function, glowing skin and shiny hair. The body cannot make its own supply, so it's essential to get them from foods. EFAs fall into two groups: omega-3, found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna, as well as flaxseeds and walnuts; and omega-6, found in seeds such as chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and nuts. Good-quality supplements of evening primrose oil and borage oil also provide omega-6 in a specially converted form known as gamma linoleic acid (GLA). Hemp seeds are another wonderful source of GLA and omega-3.

Silica: A trace mineral is a vital nutrient for healthy hair and also for strong teeth and bones. Silica helps the body utilize other minerals such as boron, copper, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus. There are several food sources of silica, including seaweed, oats, millet, barley and whole wheat. You could take a silica supplement if your hair needs a boost.

Get recipes for making your own natural hair products
Make Your Own Natural Hair Products

These days, there's a broad range of natural hair products readily available, including shampoo, conditioner, gels, mousse and coloring products. But you don't need to go to the store to get these things—look no further than your own kitchen!
  • One of my favorite hair conditioning treatments is coconut oil. Warm the oil and massage it into the scalp and hair, then wrap the head in a warmed towel and leave for at least an hour before washing out. I find it leaves my hair soft and silky. You could also cover your pillow with a towel and leave the oil in overnight. Jojoba or olive oil also works very well to condition the hair and scalp.
  • Another wonderful nourishing treatment is simple mayonnaise—which contains oil to nourish the hair—and egg, which is a natural conditioner. For an extra-deep conditioning treatment for dry or damaged hair, add half an avocado to about 1/3 cup mayonnaise and mash until creamy. Apply to the hair and cover with a shower cap. Leave for about 30 minutes, then wash out. You can wrap in a warm towel to allow the conditioner to penetrate more deeply.
  • A little dollop of aloe vera gel does wonders to control frizz, enhance curls and generally condition the hair.
  • You can make a nourishing hair rinse by simmering one cup nettle leaf in three cups water for about 10 minutes. Strain and apply to the hair and scalp daily for a period of time to condition the hair. Keep refrigerated.
  • Rosemary hair rinse is excellent for oily hair and helps dark hair retain its color. Simply simmer 1/4 cup fresh or dried rosemary in two cups water for about 10 minutes. Strain and apply to hair; leave in overnight.
  • To restore the color in graying hair, simmer equal parts rosemary and sage in water, and strain. Apply to the hair daily until you are satisfied with the results.
  • To clarify hair and remove product buildup, you can make a rinse from apple cider vinegar mixed with water, poured on the hair after you wash and condition. You don't need to rinse it out. You can vary the ratio depending on the condition of your hair, but generally about 1/2 cup cider vinegar to 1 1/2 cups cold water will effectively remove product buildup.
  • You can also use natural food products to enhance the color of your hair. A mixture of equal parts carrot and beet juice will bring out the tones in red hair. For brunettes, soak in very strong black coffee, and for blondes, mix lemon juice with a little olive oil, slather on your hair and sit in the sun for about half an hour to bring out your natural highlights. Strong chamomile tea used as a final rinse will also enhance blond hair.
  • Ginger is an excellent dandruff remedy. Grate a knob of fresh ginger and squeeze out about 1 tablespoon juice (you can do this using a small strainer or squeeze between two spoons). Mix with one tsp. lemon juice and one tsp. sesame oil, and massage into the scalp. Leave on for about 30 minutes before washing out. Repeat three times a week until the condition improves.
  • One of my all-time favorite conditioners I enjoyed when I lived by a river in the beautiful Hanalei valley on Kauai was awapuhi ginger. It grew in abundance along the river, and I would get in the water and drench my hair in the awapuhi juice. After an hour or so lying in the sun, I jumped back in the water to rinse my hair—sheer bliss for body, soul and hair! Many natural hair products use awapuhi for its conditioning properties.

Exercises for Healthy Hair

Outside of the kitchen, yoga is an excellent form of exercise for overall health and for the health of the hair. Yoga relieves stress and increases circulation of energy and blood throughout the body. Exercises such as head and shoulder stands are particularly beneficial, as they increase circulation of blood and energy to the head, which encourages healthy hair growth.

Massaging the scalp is also a great thing to do. There are pressure points in the head that correspond to all the internal organs, so a good head massage can relieve tension and stress throughout the entire body. I don't tend to brush my hair on a regular basis, as it messes with my curls, but I always give my hair a good brushing before I shower, making sure to stimulate my scalp as I brush. This stimulates hair growth and activates the natural oils in the scalp that condition the hair.

With love,

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