Everyone and their dog has seen “the slap” at this point – the infamous smack that landed Will Smith in quite a bit of hot water with popular culture. He was defending his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, during the Oscars after Chris Rock made an unfortunate and insensitive joke at her expense. Regardless of our reaction to “the slap”, it was an opportunity for the world at large to understand more about a little known condition.
Jada Pinkett Smith has shared publicly about her struggles with alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition causing patchy hair loss on the scalp.
September is Alopecia Awareness month, so let’s take an opportunity to learn about what alopecia is, the potential causes, and what supplements could support this condition.
What is Alopecia Areata?
Alopecia areata is classified as an autoimmune condition affecting around 1.7% of the population. It is a form of hair loss that causes bald patches usually on the scalp, and can flare and relapse as a result of a number of factors (1). The average age of onset seems to be between 25 and 36 years old, with childhood cases tending to be more severe and widespread (2). Bald patches are often the size of a quarter, and some people affected report feeling stinging, itching or other painful sensations at the hair loss sites (3).
Interestingly, skin biopsies taken of alopecia areata patients show an increase in natural killer cells as well as Th1 cells around the hair shaft during the active hair growth stage (the anagen phase) (3). Simply put, the individual’s own immune cells are attacking the hair follicles, under the impression that the hair is a foreign antigen, a tumor, or a virus.
Alopecia areata (AA) can progress to total baldness of the scalp (called alopecia totalis) or complete baldness all over the body (called alopecia universalis). Hair loss is usually not permanent as the hair follicles are not completely destroyed.
What Causes it?
Generally, the recognized factors bringing on the onset of alopecia areata include anxiety, depression, other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus erythematosus, thyroid disease, vitiligo, and inflammatory bowel disease (4; 5). Eczema has also been reported in 38% of patients (4).
Triggers and causes are not fully understood, but potential triggers could be emotional or physical stress (such as bereavement, injury or infection), and potentially vaccinations such as those for Hepatitis B or swine flu (3). Oxidative stress is another potential factor triggering the onset of a flare (3) (an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants which causes widespread damage to the tissues).
Potential Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
As with many autoimmune diseases, little is known about vitamin and mineral deficiencies that are caused by or associated with alopecia. However, it has been suggested that zinc and iron deficiencies are positively correlated with alopecia (5), especially for women in the case of iron deficiency). This suggests that eating zinc and iron rich foods could positively contribute to improvement or management.
Foods rich in zinc include:
- Grass-fed red meat – hormone and antibiotic-free
- Shellfish (oysters, shrimp, etc)
- Raw, unsalted seeds (pumpkin, sesame) – organic if possible
- Raw, unsalted nuts (almonds, cashews, etc) – organic if possible
Foods rich in iron include:
- Fish and shellfish
- Grass-fed red meat, liver, organ meats – hormone and antibiotic-free
- Non-heme plant-based iron sources include spinach and other dark green vegetables, dark chocolate, beans, and grains like quinoa.
The strongest link in terms of vitamins has been shown with vitamin D in multiple studies. Alopecia areata and low vitamin D levels have been demonstrated, suggesting that supplementation with vitamin D could be helpful (5, 6). Vitamin D shifts the immune response from a pro-inflammatory response to a more anti-inflammatory immune one (7), so supplementation with vitamin D could be extremely helpful with alopecia (6).
Although not linked with alopecia directly, omega 3 & 6 supplementation has been shown in a 6-month trial in females to improve hair density, thickness, and hair growth when combined with antioxidants (8). Omega 3s are well known to be anti-inflammatory fats, which could help with regulating the inflammation that comes with autoimmunity.
Vitamins and Minerals for Alopecia
*As with all supplements, consult a physician, naturopathic doctor or other healthcare practitioner before starting supplements.
Managing inflammation is key when working on autoimmunity, as well as combating oxidative, physical, mental and emotional stress. Certain nutrients also encourage hair regrowth.
- Curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory compound present in turmeric. NFH’s Curcumin SAP could be an effective way to reduce overall inflammation in the body. Bonus: it’s an antioxidant!
- Iron – consuming iron-rich foods with vitamin C sources (to increase absorption) would be a good starting point. Iron levels must be checked via blood work before supplementation, and you should work with a healthcare practitioner to determine your needs. Genestra’s liquid iron is a highly absorbable option if supplementation is needed, delivering 15mg per dose.
- Vitamin D and omega 3s – having your vitamin D levels checked will be most beneficial in advance of supplementation, but supplementation with vitamin D in the winter is common in North America. Omega 3s can be helpful for numerous functions including supporting hair regrowth. Genestra Super EFA Forte with vitamin D is a liquid formula that combines 1000 IU of vitamin D with fish oil to support the nervous system, immune system, and cellular health.
- B vitamins – managing stress, as a potential causative factor of alopecia, is critical. B vitamins are critical for the nervous system, energy production, and the adrenal glands. They can be used to help manage stress and boost mood (especially vitamin B6). Genestra’s Active B Complex is a great option to deliver daily B vitamin needs and includes a good amount of biotin, a vitamin that supports healthy hair.
While alopecia areata is an autoimmune condition, and therefore difficult to manage, a whole foods diet, stress management, and certain supplements can be extremely helpful in both altering the body’s immune response as well as encouraging hair growth. Luckily for most individuals with AA, hair loss is not permanent, and with the right tools, team, and motivation, it is certainly manageable.
Blog Written by: Jennifer Costello
Advice and/or information provided is not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent disease.
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