Warning System Within Your Hair
by Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
ARE YOU uncertain when or if the roots of a health problem are present or slowly proliferating toward ultimate crisis?
If so, you are not alone.
Millions of others share your anxiety — as do clinical practitioners.
Wouldn't it be great if we could have ways to find early warnings — especially of today's most prevalent disease profiles — those of chronic degenerative origin?
Well, the outlook is increasingly positive, because the biomedical community is searching for — and finding — just such new diagnostic techniques.
The past 10 years have seen several major advances made in this area, but one that is particularly attractive is hair trace mineral analysis.
A Running Record
Human hair is a running record of what has been going on in the body — a kind of nutritional microscope allowing us to peer into the health of the cells that make up our body.
The trace minerals are now receiving the attention that vitamins did in the 1930's and 40's as to importance in establishing proper health patterns. We now recognize that of the 50 some nutrients essential for proper nutrition, many are in the family called the essential trace minerals, including such strange members as cobalt, molybdenum, vanadium, selenium, chromium and manganese.
Each one of these metals has many specific roles in optimizing physiological function. The most common role of these elements is to facilitate the jobs of the body's chemical workhorses — the enzymes. For instance, zinc is known to activate many enzymes including DNA dependent-RNA polymerase, the enzyme which controls cell growth and repair. Copper is known to a part of the enzyme called ferroxidase, which manifests proper red blood cell function. Shortages of these essential trace minerals can lead to inefficient cell function, and, therefore, reduced cell efficiency that might ultimately result in disease or infection.
A Little Is Good
If a little of these is good, then would a whole lot be better?
The answer is most definitely no. Each individual carries specific needs for each element. Intakes in great excess of those needed can lead to cellular disruption. A good case in point is selenium. It is absolutely essential at low levels to power the body's defense platoon, the anti-oxidant system, through activating the enzyme glutathione peroxidase. (It is interesting to note that only five years ago selenium was regarded only as a toxic element by many investigators.) However, at not too much higher levels than that which is beneficial (usually, 80-150 mg. daily) selenium can become toxic.
How does one then pattern a proper nutritional regime to optimize trace mineral function and prevent specific associated disease processes from progressing?
A diagnostic bell is rung, signaling the potential importance of hair trace mineral analysis in providing this information. A recent study published by Stanley Gershoff and coworkers from the Harvard Department of Nutrition has indicated that trace element levels in hair are not only affected by trace minerals in the diet, but also by the other components such as vitamins, proteins, fats and carbohydrates. It was found that a high sugar diet containing the same level of minerals as a high protein diet with vitamins resulted in much lower levels of selected essential minerals in the hair than the protein diet. It has been discovered that patients with diagnosed hypo or hyperglycemia from six hour glucose tolerance tests have specific hair trace mineral patterns, as do patients suffering from thyroid difficulties and anemia. This means that hair trace mineral analysis is reflective of the total nutritional and physiological environment that patients are in. Furthermore, the information gained from hair trace mineral data is more focused on changes associated with early diagnosis of chronic degenerative processes such as dysinsulism, calcium imbalances, and fat metabolism difficulties than is the standard blood chemical screen. The ease of sample procurement, its stability and generally higher trace mineral levels make hair a more convenient tissue to assay than is blood.
Preparing The Sample
It is important to note that the hair should be obtained at the nape of the neck and represent the first inch or so of newest growth. Long hairs are not satisfactory due to changes that occur at the tip of the hair (like splitting) after exposure to the environment for some time. A sample of approximately three teaspoons is generally sufficient for analysis. The sample should be cut up finely and mixed well, avoiding contamination as much as possible. The use of certain hair dyes, preparations, and shampoos can alter the trace mineral values, and, therefore, their use should be indicated to the physician before submitting the sample for analysis.
What, however, of the reproducibility of data derived from hair analysis? Can it be trusted?
To answer these questions, we must look at both its sensitivity and precision. Sensitivity is a measurement of how low a value can be determined accurately. The technique of analysis that is generally employed is atomic absorption or atomic emission spectroscopy. This technique is more sensitive for some elements than others, but is basically trustworthy at the level that trace minerals are found in hair: parts per million. The second concept, that of precision is more important, however. This asks the question "If you ran the same sample ten times, what scatter would you get in results?" The answer to this is fundamentally determined by the degree of care in running the sample provided by the laboratory. No matter how expensive the equipment, the results will be no better than the technician who obtained them.
Presently there is a tremendous range in precision of the various commercial hair analysis laboratories. Do all laboratories handle your hair sample the same? The answer is no. They each have different procedures of washing and digesting the sample, which means that patients' data from two different laboratories should not be compared directly. This is quite different than blood analysis, where standard methods have been accepted for all laboratories. Until standard methods are agreed upon, hair analysis levels will vary from lab to lab.
What is Normal
What about the establishment of normals? In blood chemistries, normals are defined as the range of values which include approximately 90% of all the patients taking that specific test. This obviously is only indirectly related to health in that the normal population could be sick. In hair analysis, the data is expressed in terms of a range for optimal health — not normals. This is both good and bad. It is good because it means people can see how they deviate from some ideal range, and it is bad because someone or group must subjectively determine in their own minds what constitutes an optimal range. This is where the controversy exists. What one laboratory establishes as optimal, another may consider suboptimal. The ultimate evaluation of the optimal ranges for the various trace elements is, therefore, still in a state of flux and may not be resolved for several years. It is safe to say, however, that deviations far from the optimal are highly suggestive of metabolic problems.
The best use of the hair analysis comes in conjunction wth blood and urine analytical data as well as a good patient history and dietary survey. A physician skilled in interpreting these data weaving them together has insight into potential health problems which allows a preventive course of action to be taken before a symptomatic disease results. The use of several pieces of information allows for internal confirmation of unusual results, and helps prevent misdiagnosis.
One question often asked about hair analysis is the importance of high values and whether they always indicate cellular excesses. Our work suggests that the hair is an excretory vehicle by which minerals are lost from the body. High hair levels of a specific trace mineral, therefore, may be indicative of tissue deficiencies. Work with hair and serum zinc determinations in patients with zinc deficiency syndromes (rigid fingernails, white spots under the fingernails, poor taste acuity) showed that the hair zinc levels were low in both cases. This shows that the control of trace mineral deposition in the hair is a more complex process than we were originally aware. The best way to sort out these problems is by examining the ratio of one element to another, for instance, zinc to copper. Deviations from the ideal ratio of near 8 to 1 is a flag for potential deficiencies or excesses.
One very important use of trace element analysis not yet mentioned is in diagnosing toxic metal accumulation such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. As our environment has become more contaminated with toxic metals, the toxic effects they produce has become more of a problem. Many professions have their own toxic metal hazards, such as mercury in dentistry, lead in paints and dyes, and cadmium in welders. Many of our water supplies are contaminated with metals such as copper, arsenic, or mercury. The implications of cadmium intake and the appearance of essential hypertension are just now being appreciated. Many central nervous system changes and behavioral problems are related to toxic metal poisoning, and hair analysis can be used as a first look at this problem.
In a landmark paper, Dr. R.O. Pihl and M. Parkes, of McGill University, have recently shown that the hair trace element levels of learning disabled children were remarkably different from that of normal controls. By utilizing only hair cadmium, cobalt, chromium, lithium, and manganese, the workers were able to predict with 98% accuracy whether a child would or would not be considered learning disabled once tested. It is very interesting to note that in the learning disabled children, the levels of cadmium and lead were much higher than the control group, suggesting the potential involvement of the toxic metals in the development of learning disabilities.
The state of the art with regard to hair analysis interpretation is still rapidly evolving. The information now available demonstrates quite clearly that its use in health profiling allows information to be gained about the patient that is not obtainable easily by any other method. The value of the test is dependent upon the quality of the laboratory, the physician's experience in its interpretation and its integration with other test results. Examples of its application include Michael Hambridge, a pediatrician at the University of Colorado Medical School, who has demonstrated that children who have poor growth profiles and taste perception have lower than normal hair zinc levels. The work of K. Jeejeebhoy, at the University of Toronto Medical School, has demonstrated that the presence of late-age onset diabetes may be associated with low chromium levels in the hair. Work published in 1968 in the journal Diabetes has also indicated that juvenile onset diabetics also have significantly different hair chromium values than nondiabetic children.
Our work recently has demonstrated that individuals suffering from anemias have significantly altered copper and iron levels, as compared to normal controls. These are but a few of the many examples of the usefulness of hair analysis in diagnosing clinical problems.
The future of hair analysis is bright, and its formal adoption as an important diagnostic technique is not far away. Trace mineral patterns in hair are proving fruitful data, not only as a diagnostic procedure, but also in providing answers pertaining to treatment. It will become increasingly common for physicians to use hair analysis in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic degenerative disease.