The anthropology of hair loss

The anthropology of hair loss – Medical Anthropology

Tim Batchelder

Hair loss and related scalp disorders are novel conditions of civilization that can be reversed or prevented by taking into account our evolutionary background. In this column I’ll look at some of the cross cultural and evolutionary factors involved in hair loss and related disorders.

Ethnopharmaceuticals for Hair Loss

People in many traditional cultures have used medicinal plant and animal products to help prevent hair loss. Below are some common products in use along with their cultural source:

* Grape seed and vine: Native Americans used grape vine sap and grape seed extract applied to the scalp for hair loss. Grape seed and vine contains proanthocyanidins which are potent antioxidants and act as a smooth muscle relaxant in blood vessels and capillaries, preventing or offsetting damage to the hair follicle blood supply. A patent was issued in Japan for grape seed extract as a hair regrowth compound.

* Rosemary oil is used in North America and Europe for cleansing the scalp and stimulating the hair root while sage is used to thicken hair shafts and helps dissolve sebum deposits.

* Wild olive oil was used by the Greek herbalist of the 1st century AD Dioscorides and today Mediterranean people apply virgin olive oil to the hair and scalp.

* Emu oil was used by aboriginal people in Australia for dermatological and inflammatory disorders. Modern research shows that emu oil contains linolenic acid and oleic acid which act as an anti-inflammatory. Emu Oil is a 5-alpha-reductase (an enzyme related to hair loss) inhibitor. Hair restoration products which contain emu oil have been patented. The application of emu oil to the skin causes an increase in the synthesis of DNA in the epidermis and may increase the proliferative activity of the skin. Animals fed emu oil have an increased pigmentation and hair growth. The skin of the animals increases in thickness and the size of the hair follicle increases.

* Fish oil used by Arctic and Asian people for skin and hair care contains the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA (eicosapentaeionic acid and decohexaenoic acid) which have been shown to improve cholesterol profiles, and alleviate many forms of chronic inflammation which is a major factor in hair loss.

* Bilberry: Bilberry extracts have been shown to improve microcapillary circulation, and strengthen collagen throughout the body.

* Eucalyptus regulates sebum and reduces inflammation.

* Tea tree oil is anti-bacterial and is good for dandruff.

* Jojoba oil was used by Indians of the southwestern US for hair and skin problems and resembles the skin’s own sebum.

* Aloe vera: Indigenous people in Mexico use aloe vera which contains proteolytic enzymes that slough off dead skin cells and open pores. A mucopolysacchnride known as Acemannan in aloe vera increases membrane fluidity and permeability and the outward flow of toxins and inward flow of nutrients.

* Cayenne is a powerful irritant and brings blood flow to the scalp and histamine release which stimulates cell division. Ginger also works in a similar way. To make a solution of both combine a pint of 100 proof vodka with 4 oz of herb.

* Ginkgo Biloba is a popular herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to improve cerebral blood flow and blood circulation. It has been reported to inhibit 5-alpha reductase activity. Ginkgo has been shown to protect small blood vessels and micro capillaries against loss of tone and fragility. Because DHT-mediated inflammation to the follicle blood supply is a major factor in male pattern balding and their types of hair loss, it is likely to be beneficial.

* Bee pollen, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is rich in L-Cysteine which stimulates hair growth since hair is 8% LCysteine.

* Green tea used in traditional Asian society as a food and medicine, has been shown in several studies to be a potent inhibitor of 5-alpha-reductase type I, the enzyme that converts testosterone into DHT in skin.

* Sea vegetables: People in Asian cultures have long consumed sea vegetables as a regular part of their diet which may explain their freedom from hair loss, traditionally. Iodine is found in large amounts in sea vegetables and regulates the thyroid which is important for hair growth. Interestingly, studies with sheep farmers find it is important for wool quality.

* Saw palmetto: Saw palmetto berries were long used by Native Americans as a food and as a herbal treatment for atrophy of the testes, impotence, inflammation of the prostate and low libido in men, Many herbalists consider saw palmetto a mild aphrodisiac for men. Women used the berries to treat infertility, painful periods and problems with lactation, Saw palmetto is an inhibitor of the formation and actions of DHT. It inhibits 50% of the binding of DHT to receptor sites in the prostate, blocks the uptake of DHT into the nucleus of prostate cells, and inhibits the action of testosterone 5-alpha-reductase, which converts testosterone to DHT. Serenoa repens has also been shown to reduce inflammation, a common factor seen in tissues involved in androgenic alopecia.

* Nettles were widely used by Native Americans as a hair tonic and are rich in silica which is essential to maintain nails, hair, skin and cell walls, teeth and eyes. Most foods are silica deficient due to soil erosion and use of incomplete chemical fertilizers. The herb horsetail, onions, leeks, cabbage, sunflower seeds, swiss chard, celery, rhubarb and cauliflower are also rich in silica. Parsnip contains both sulfur and silica. But be warned that commercial shampoos have very little silica since it is so difficult to isolate. To make your own just dissolve 2 tablespoons of powdered vegetal silica extract in a few ounces of hot water.

* Onions are also the richest source of sulfur which is part of all amino acids that are used to build hair. Other good sources are garlic, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, and turnips. Watercress contains large amounts of sulfur and can be made into a juice.

* Red Clover is rich in phytoestrogens that work to prevent buildup of testosterone in the scalp. One of the first phytoestrogens to be studied was found in red clover and it remains one of the best sources. When female sheep eat a diet high in red clover their menstrual cycles become irregular.

* Animal products: Aztec remedies included a poultice of nettles, scorpions and millipedes ground up and boiled together. Urine from a pregnant woman was applied to the scalp as well. One new drug, Kevis, contains aqueous extract of human umbilical cord! Another, Viviscal, contains fish cartilage extract that thickens epidermis and cures sun damage in skin, resulting in a reversal of age related dermal thinning and collagen breakdown.

Testosterone, Culture and Hair Loss

I’ve written extensively about testosterone, culture and health in a previous column, but I should mention here that high testosterone is clearly implicated in hair loss and is closely related to various cultural factors that vary between societies. Cross cultural studies show that Japanese men who shift from their traditional vegetable based diet to a Western one high in animal foods begin to lose their hair. Prior to the introduction of animal fat into their diet after World War II Japanese people’s hair was thick and healthy. High animal food intake raises cholesterol which contributes to male pattern baldness by increasing sebum production. Excess sebum that accompanies hair loss is due to enlargement of the sebaceous gland which is attached to each hair follicle. This increases sebum production, clogging pores, malnourishing the hair root and raising levels of the enzyme 5 alpha reductase which converts testosterone to the hormone DHT which causes follicles to shrink and hair to go into resting phase. Ex cess animal food in the diet also over-stimulates the adrenal glands, producing extra androgens, which raises testosterone levels in the scalp. Testosterone levels peak in the fall and are lowest in spring when hair grows most fully.

In women, after menopause estrogen levels drop causing female hair loss since estrogen lowers testosterone levels in the blood. Estrogen stimulating foods such as tofu helped Japanese women eating their traditional diet avoid hair loss after menopause.

Many of the herbs mentioned above are useful in lowering levels of testosterone in the scalp. And despite the common fear that lowered testosterone will somehow limit the “masculinity” of men in industrial cultures, the truth is exactly the opposite: men with the highest testosterone levels have lower incomes, lower social status, more unstable relationships, and more difficulty in life. Obtaining rewards in modern cultures requires patience, cunning, and interpersonal skills — all marked by low, not high, testosterone levels. Further, lower testosterone levels in men helps to improve health status. Testosterone has often been suspected as a cause of the increased heart disease in men. Studies of men who were castrated in the 1920’s in the USA found that they lived an average of 13.6 years longer than comparable men (Hamilton & Mesler 1969). Interestingly, castrated men were shown to never go bald as early as the time of Hippocrates.

Bodywork, Massage and Yoga

Numerous traditional forms of physical activity and bodywork are useful in the prevention and treatment of hair loss.

Arthritis or tightness of the neck and spine can tighten blood vessels in the head, reducing circulation and blood flow. Stress blocks circulation to the scalp due to muscle tension resulting in poor nutrition to the’ hair follicle. Due to thinner scalp tissue men are more prone to baldness due to stress, than women.

Seborrhea of the scalp (overproduction of oil secretion) also causes hair loss. This form of dandruff forms greasy or crusty scales on the scalp in contrast to the common form which has dry flakes and is not related to hair loss. In both cases excess sebum combines with dead cell flakes from normal sloughing, clogging the follicle and inhibits the hair reproductive cycle. Dry hair accompanies this syndrome since oily flakes clogging the follicles prevent oil from traveling down the hair shaft. When sebum combines with excess scalp perspiration it can form hard, crystalline follicle plugs. This causes follicle congestion and tissue hardening which inhibits nutrient flow to the hair.

Body massage is an excellent way of relieving tension and tightness. Physical activity will also reduce stress and increase blood flow to the extremities including the head and scalp. Yoga is very useful. Brushing stimulates circulation and brings oils to the ends of shafts. It also removes dead cells.

Conventional Body Care Products

Overuse of antibacterial agents and other cleansers in America has resulted in the depletion of skin and hair oils and beneficial bacteria important for immunity and the integrity of the skin and hair. Excess shampooing drains hair of minerals and conventional shampoo contains formaldehyde (now disguised as quanternium 15) that damages hair. Coconut based cleansers are safer but SLS strips too much oil from the hair and leaves a residue that clogs follicles. When hair is “squeaky clean” it is overwashed. Anti-dandruff shampoos contain selenium sulfide which causes liver damage and PVP which is a carcinogen. Chlorinated water is also hard on the hair and can dry it excessively. Avoid using very hot water since this softens the scalp making it easier to pull hair from their roots. Final rinsing should be with cool to cold water which stimulates circulation and shrinks the outer layer of the hair making it smoother and makes hairs stiffer, stronger and locks them more into their roots. Wash your hair just once p er week if you can. I could easily write an entire paper on the risks of drug therapies for hair loss but I’ll sum them all up in one word: don’t. All these treatments offer the illusion of increased hair growth but are a Faustian bargain since they require ever-increasing doses to prevent tolerance and massive hair loss and come with a host of nasty side effects.


In this column I’ve discussed some important ways that therapies from other cultures offer solutions for the modern problem of hair loss. Further, we’ve looked at some of the reasons why loss of hair in modern industrial peoples represents our detachment from the evolutionary environment of our past. Modern Western medical research is also employing such an evolutionary perspective in recent animal field studies of hair loss. For example, the stump-tailed macaque is now considered a superior animal model for studying pattern baldness (Uno 1987) since they have balding patterns similar to that in humans. For more information on the anthropology of hair loss and references for this article please see or email me at

COPYRIGHT 2003 The Townsend Letter Group

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