Cookies on the Healthspan site
Glossy hair and strong nails are a great indicator of general health, but as oestrogen levels start to dwindle in the years leading up to the menopause and after, hair can become dry and lacklustre, and start to thin.
It may also grow more slowly and even drop out. Meanwhile, our nails may become brittle and start to split and chip. Fortunately, there are natural ways to help solve the problem.
"If your nails become very dry and weak, your hair is likely to be showing similar signs of distress because both are made of keratin, a protein formed in the epidermis from amino acids," explains Julie Thornton, a professor in biochemistry at the University of Bradford and an expert in menopausal skin and hair.
Decline in oestrogen also means that skin, including the scalp, gets thinner as collagen is lost. While collagen is not involved in hair fibre, it does affect the follicle and hair growth.
"Think of the hair follicle as a tree planted in the dermis," says Professor Thornton. "If it's not being fed properly it won't thrive so well. Evidence suggests that scalp skin ageing and hair follicle ageing go hand-in-hand, so what's good for skin is good for your hair, too."
"The human scalp contains approximately 100,000 hair follicles, 90 per cent of which are in the growth phase known as the anagen phase," explains hair dermatologist Dr Nekma Meah, secretary of the British Hair and Nail Society (BHNS, bhns.org.uk). "Normally, we shed between 100 and 150 hairs from our scalp every day, the telogen phase."
This often goes unnoticed, but hormone changes during the menopausal years can affect this process and the amount of time hair spends in the growth phase decreases from a few years to only a few months, while the length of the telogen phase (time during which hair falls out) increases.
"Proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals are key constituents of hair and are needed for healthy growth," explains Dr Meah. "Deficiencies in these can lead to changes in hair colour, hair loss and fragility.
"The role of micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals (vitamin A, C, D, E, iron, selenium, biotin and zinc), have been investigated, and we know people who are deficient in iron or vitamin D may experience acute hair loss, a condition known as telogen effluvium.
"The nutritional deficiency needs remedying, but the hair loss has to be treated either topically or with prescription pills from a dermatologist."
For glossier, healthier hair, you need to look after your scalp, so wash your hair at least every other day, advises trichologist and hair-loss expert Dr Hugh Rushton: "Many people reduce how often they wash their hair because they fear losing more hair.
"The cycle of hair-shedding and growing is a continuous process, though. Washing hair only once a week means there's greater hair loss in one go, fuelling anxiety."
Massage the shampoo on to your scalp and gently spread it through your hair. Avoid scrunching hair as this disturbs the fine cells that overlap like roof tiles on the outside of each hair, making breakage more likely.
Finally, use a wide-toothed comb rather than a brush, so hair doesn't get tangled, advises Dr Rushton.
Post-menopause, our nails may also change, becoming more brittle (a condition known as onychorrhexis), develop vertical ridges (longitudinal striations) and split (onychoschizia) says consultant dermatologist Dr Rhiannon Llewellyn, a specialist in nail disease and a BHNS member.
"The nails are highly susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, and changes in colour and texture," says Dr Llewellyn. The most common deficiencies are iron, vitamin D and riboflavin (vitamin B2), which can all make nails more fragile.
Vitamin D deficiency can lead to soft nails (hapalonychia) that peel and bend easily. Brittle nails are the most common problem post-menopause, but nail hardeners and biotin (vitamin B7) supplements can be helpful.
Hair and nails, as a non-essential tissue, will be the first areas the body neglects if our nutritional energy supplies and essential nutrients run low for any reason.
To give hair and nails a helping hand, boost your daily diet with eggs, nuts, oily fish such as salmon, low-fat dairy, legumes, wholegrains and a rainbow of vegetables, including dark green leaves such as spinach and kale.
Iron deficiency can cause hair loss, and, while good sources are red meat, chicken and fish, a diet including pulses, dark green veg, eggs, dried fruit, wholemeal bread and fortified cereal also provides iron.
As well as a good supply of energy-producing protein and complex carbohydrates, we also need antioxidant vitamins and minerals to combat low-level inflammation, which is associated with the ageing process. This increases oxidative stress and damage to DNA, proteins and lipids in the hair follicle area, says Professor Thornton.
Look out for supplements containing vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, along with the minerals selenium and magnesium, as well as coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols and phytoestrogens, all of which can help to protect against free-radical damage to the tissues. It's possible to obtain many of these nutrients from a single hair and nails supplement.
Essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make, are also vital for healthy cells and to enable the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E. Biotin, a form of vitamin B, aids the metabolism of amino acids, the building blocks of protein that are essential for maintaining healthy nails and hair. What's more, nourishing hair and nails will also encourage healthy glowing skin.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.