Hair, Skin and Nails
How Hormones Affect Hair, Skin, and Nails
By Corey Schuler, MS, DC, LN, CNS
Long, beautiful hair can fall out seemingly overnight. Clumps can come out at once in your brush or, more insidiously, hair can thin over a period of weeks or months. Shine can be lost and softness can be replaced by what feels like tiny wires that no one wants to touch. Many shower drains have been witnesses to the crimes. Similarly, fingernails that have always been strong and grown well suddenly stop or become brittle. We cover them up with polish or supplement with acrylics, but we know they are not what they used to be despite what others see. But perhaps more concerning is when our morning look in the bathroom mirror reveals extra wrinkles, sagging skin around our jawline, or acne along our hairline, mouth or jaw when the awkwardness of puberty has long passed.
I am often asked about dietary supplements and foods that might support hair, skin and nail health. Typically, most health food stores and co-ops limit their selection of products designed to support these tissues to ones that contain biotin, silica, or horsetail (an herb that contains silica). These natural products do, on occasion support the shine or growth of hair, skin, or nails. However, slow growth of fingernails and toenails may suggest any nutrient insufficiency so isolating biotin or silica is slightly myopic. What is more common than a deficiency of biotin is changes in hormone levels as women age. Hormone imbalance for women of reproductive years can cause poor growth and even hair loss. Post-pregnancy hair loss is one of the keen examples of hormone changes premenopause. Hormone instability as seen in perimenopause is worth noting as well. This is the time of a woman’s life when she starts to have irregular, often frequent periods followed by spaced out cycles ultimately skipping many months on end. The ovaries slow their production of hormones and the adrenal glands kick in. This is a fantastic design IF the woman has not been under chronic stress and the adrenal glands are functioning optimally. However, due to modern living this physiologic baton hand-off does not often happen as expected. This stage of life is known for instability of hormones and is often expressed with symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, dryness and low libido. Beyond these cardinal symptoms, weight gain, hair loss, thyroid conditions, and increased risk of heart disease and reduced bone mineral density rear their ugly heads. Menopause may be rife with similar symptoms as perimenopause but is also distinguished by hormone loss rather than instability. Many postmenopausal and perimenopausal women deal with hair, skin, and nails problems that biotin and silica cannot solve.
Hormone Balance: Skin, hair and nails are regulated and affected by a variety of hormones- chemical messengers that travel throughout the body- produced especially in the ovaries, thyroid, and adrenal glands. The most important hormones affecting the health of skin, hair and nails are estrogen (especially in proportion to testosterone), thyroid hormones and cortisol.
Estrogen: Not surprisingly, estrogen levels affect every part of the body, including hair, skin and nails. For women, estrogen regulates the thickness of the skin, moisture content and suppleness, wrinkle formation and blood flow to the skin. Sex hormones, including estrogen and progesterone, are one of the most significant factors affecting acne, both in puberty and adulthood. Estrogen also affects hair growth. After menopause, women may find their head hair thinning, while hair on the chin and other areas may grow thicker or remains the same. This is because estrogen levels reduce even more than testosterone levels, leaving women with relatively more testosterone.
Androgens: The “male” sex hormones, androgens are a group of hormones that, along with estrogens, are meant to help maintain balance in a wide variety of bodily processes. Unfortunately, though, for many women, especially women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), androgen levels are relatively high compared with estrogen levels. Along with other effects, high androgen levels can cause acne, both during and after puberty.
Thyroid Hormones: The basic role of thyroid hormones is to regulate the body’s overall rate of processing. If the body produces too much thyroid hormone, skin will be hot and flushed, smooth and sweaty. Sometimes too much thyroid hormone can result in extra pigmentation in the skin. If, however, the body produces too little, the skin will be coarse, dry, thick, unable to sweat properly, and can take on a yellowish hue. Both thyroid hormone deficiency and excess can cause thinning of hair. In cases of deficiency, hair is brittle and falls out in clumps, whereas in cases of excess individual hairs are very fine and there is an overall thinning pattern. Nails follow a similar pattern, with too much thyroid hormone causing nails to grow quickly but also thick or club-like, and too little causing slow growth and ridged, brittle nails.
Cortisol: Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands during times of stress. Its intended purpose is to help the body maintain a higher level of activity and alertness in situations of short-term stress, but in today’s environment of chronic, long-term and recurring stressors, cortisol can cause dysfunction rather than help survival. Generally speaking, high levels of cortisol increase symptoms of chronic conditions in the skin, hair and nails, and also have some affects on otherwise healthy individuals. The skin responds to high cortisol levels by producing more oil, which in turn can lead to both oily skin and acne breakouts. Hair responds to high cortisol by actually falling out, and can take from six to nine months to begin growing back. White lines across the nails and brittle, peeling nails are also signs of elevated cortisol levels.
Hormone Replacement Therapy: To combat the hormonal imbalances that can cause detrimental effects on the skin, some patients use Hormone Replacement Therapies (HRT). Various hormone replacement regimens have been in use for the past 20 years to help maintain healthier, fuller skin, especially estrogen replacement. Many women have been seeking a safe, natural alternative to Hormone Replacement Therapy since the release of the Women’s Health Initiative findings in 2001. While the use of bioidentical hormones may be one solution, we have had limited success with herbal alternatives—options such as black cohosh, red clover, and soy may reduce menopausal symptoms, but their effects on actual hormone levels have not been demonstrated. With reduced hormone levels after menopause potentially affecting a woman’s susceptibility to heart disease, osteoporosis, and compromised cognitive function, many doctors and women have had little choice but to use hormone therapies. One particular adaptogenic product demonstrates, in double blind placebo controlled clinical trials, a positive effect on hormone levels. What interests doctors most, however, was that it does this through a unique mode of action. Femmenessence is an adaptogen, and contains no phytoestrogens or other plant hormones.
Adaptogens are a unique class of herb and are extremely rare in nature. Russian researchers studied more than 4,000 medicinal plants and could identify only 12 with true adaptogenic properties. Adaptogens have long been recognized and valued for their ability to create harmony and homeostasis (balance) in the body. Over the last fifty years, thousands of research papers have demonstrated the extraordinarily diverse composition of true adaptogens and their ability to affect each individual and each system within the body differently. Depending on whether those systems are over- or under-functioning, adaptogens will restore balance, while at the same time demonstrating almost complete lack of toxic or adverse effects.
To produce positive balancing effects throughout the woman’s entire body, the forumula studied, Femmenessence, provides a concentrated combination of four major adaptogenic phenotypes or sub-species. Each phenotype elicits a different physiological effect on the body, with the combination positively affecting the whole. Femmenessence’s unique mode of action through the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis does not introduce any hormones, rather it supports the woman’s body to produce its own hormones at a level appropriate for optimal wellbeing and for her particular stage of life.
Diet & Nutrition: While research shows that diet alone may not be responsible for most skin, hair and nail problems, it is essential to provide your body with the nutrition it needs to keep itself in optimal health. There are several factors to keep in mind.
As a general rule, eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, drinking plenty of water, exercising and maintaining an active lifestyle, and wearing sunscreen are recommended to help skin, hair and nails stay healthy.
There are some vitamins and nutrients essential to skin, hair and nail health that the body may not produce on its own, but these can be obtained in adequate amounts in healthy foods. Some people with deficiencies may need supplementation in addition to the usual dietary intake. Essential vitamins specifically related to skin, hair and nail health are vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D and niacin. Additionally, adequate protein intake is necessary for optimal health.
Hair, skin, and nail health is actually very clinically relevant to the integrative practitioner. Both for aesthetics and health, addressing the cause of concerns for these tissues can open up a whole new world of health and vitality that extend beyond hair, skin, and nails while restoring youthful appearance.