Hair more than looks

Having a good or a bad hair day can make or break interviews and dates. Not only that but there are hundreds — even thousands — of products on the market to help groom hair, grow hair, and eliminate unwanted hair. But hair is more than just looks. Here are some of the ways hair is being used to track health — and may even be used to prevent skin cancer.

Testing for noxious chemicals and drugs

Did you know that your hair can be used to test for contaminants in your body? Hair testing is used to test for drug abuse in both Canada and the US. Opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, and cannabinoids are all substances that can test positive through a hair test. Accurate testing can go as far as 3-6 months back; with a longer hair, tests may be able to detect drug use further back in time, although the results are less accurate, and most labs prefer to test more recent hair growth (closer to the scalp).

Drugs aren’t the only use for hair testing either. Your hair can tell the story of environmental contaminants in your area. Greenpeace USA and the Sierra Club both offer a home sampling kit for only $25 which tests for mercury contamination.

Omega-3 fatty acids

If your hair seems limp and dry it may not just need a conditioner — it may also indicate that your diet is not rich enough in omega-3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid). This acid is important for other areas of the body as well, improving heart health and helping with mood swings.

Omega-3 fat is available in several food sources: flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, cold-water fish (tuna and salmon), omega-3 eggs, nuts (almonds, walnuts) and seeds. Because of mercury contamination in fish it may be better to use a supplement rather than trying to consume extra omega-3 through exclusively dietary changes.

Grey hair and melanoma

In 2004, researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children’s Hospital Boston found the cellular cause of graying hair while investigating the origins of malignant melanoma, the potentially deadly skin cancer. And believe it or not — it has to do with stem cells.

The scientists traced the loss of hair colour to the gradual dying off of adult stem cells that form a reservoir that spawns a continuous supply of new pigment-manufacturing cells, called melanocytes. These give hair its youthful hues.

Once these cells become depleted, they make errors, turning into fully committed pigment cells in the wrong place within the hair follicle, where they are useless for colouring hair. In melanoma, the opposite occurs — melanocytes proliferate uncontrollably to form tumours and are hard to kill with treatment. But this research may give a new way to approach the problem.

“So the question is: what in the hair follicle is signaling the stem cells that is absent when aging occurs and the stem cells die off? Now we have a much more refined way of dissecting that signaling pathway in melanoma. Eventually we hope to tap into this death pathway, thereby using drugs to mimic the aging process, to successfully treat melanoma,” says David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, director of the Dana-Farber Program in Melanoma, and one of the lead researchers for the team that discovered the link, which was published the journal Science.

So although grey hair may be a sign of aging, it may also cure cancer one day!

Photo © John Sartin

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