Can Hair Analysis Improve My Fitness?

Hair analysis has been around for years. We commonly read about hair samples determining DNA for paternity and criminal case identification. Athletes also undergo hair analysis for sports performance drugs like steroids. Gaining in popularity is hair analysis as a way to help improve our health and fitness.

You may have been told it would be beneficial to have your hair tested prompting you to read this article. Certain nutrition consultants, chiropractors and “other misguided practitioners” claim hair analyses can determine a wide variety of health problems. From weight loss to decreased risk of heart disease, hair analysis is being rumored to have all the answers.  Also, a snip of your hair is said to tell you the best foods and recommended supplements specific to your body.  

Should we believe this as truth or remain skeptical? 

What Does Research Say?

Woman doing sit-ups in the gym
Hero Images/Getty Images

Back in 1985, Stephen Barrett, MD published an article on the reliability of hair analysis.  His studies prompted a follow-up article titled “Commercial Hair Analysis: A Cardinal Sign of Quackery”.  Dr. Barrett’s research took hair samples from two healthy teenagers under assumed names and sent them to 13 different laboratories.

The hair analysis was to determine levels of multiple minerals in each hair sample. Significant differences in mineral findings were reported from identical hair samples sent to the same lab and other laboratories. “The laboratories also disagreed about what was "normal" or "usual" for many of the minerals.”

Most of the labs generated lengthy, confusing reports potentially frightening to patients. Food supplement and diet recommendations were made but also varied widely for each report.

Commercial hair analysis according to this research is not scientifically reliable and a waste of money.  

Recent Studies Indicate

Medical Research: scientists looks through a microscope at his samples
Hair Analysis Testing Methods Not Reliable. annedde / Getty Images

More recent research published in the Annals of Dermatology indicates hair analysis has limitations.

Hair samples from a healthy volunteer were sent to 3 laboratories using the same testing methods for hair analysis. The hair was tested for 24 different elements and results again varied widely per laboratory.

According to hair analysis results, the test participant may experience symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, dizziness, and insomnia. They also claimed the test subject was at increased risk of skin disease and high cholesterol.

The lab reports supplied a health evaluation with predicted future illness. They also recommended an improved diet plan and promoted “branded” supplements based on the results. In actuality, the research volunteer had no health problems or required anything for improved health. He submitted to a blood test as part of the research showing all mineral values normal and excellent physical condition.

The conclusions of this research indicate hair analysis may be beneficial for drug testing and DNA, but not a reliable test on its own for general health screening.  

Why Recommend an Unreliable Test?

Dumbbell, tape measure and to do list
Hair Analysis Gives False Feedback Like a Fad Diet. Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Hair analysis has been a controversial test for years. Even though it’s not completely accurate, there are potential advantages over biological tests like blood draws.

Hair analysis is less invasive and costs less than a full physical workup ordered by your primary doctor. Even a hint of truth to something can create belief it will be helpful. Look at all the fad diets and gimmicks being promoted to fix our fitness. This is no different.

We are continually on the lookout for the next best easy thing to improve our health. According to the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, hair analysis is a good test for mercury exposure but doesn’t provide accurate information on whether an individual will develop adverse health effects.

What it comes down to is making an informed decision about hair analysis and if it benefits your health.  

When is Hair Analysis Recommended?

Hair sample collected from crime scene for genetic testing in laboratory
Hair Analysis is Used for DNA Collection. Rafe Swan / Getty Images

Hair analysis may be recommended for toxic exposure, paternity, and criminal DNA investigations.

During an executive hair analysis panel discussion conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the following was reported:

  • Insufficient data exists for health predictions based on substances found in hair samples. 
  • Testing procedures need to be improved for more accurate “usable” results.
  • Mercury is the only scientifically established and measurable element benefited by hair analysis.

Research published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences confirms hair analysis as a valuable tool for determining competitive bodybuilding doping practices. Several international bodybuilders were arrested and the court ruled seven competitors be tested for anabolic compounds like steroids. Hair samples and urine were collected. Steroid substance were detected in both hair and urine. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) use hair evidence to solve criminal cases. The FBI indicates hair analysis “can be extremely valuable in the examination of physical evidence.” It can determine relationship or not between the victim and a suspect. The hair follicle and shaft contain DNA detectable through scientific testing methods reliable for criminal investigations. 

The Journal of Medical Genetics explains hair roots contain DNA for paternity testing. It’s less invasive than blood tests making it a better alternative especially for children. Some genetic testing requires additional screening that includes RNA (nucleic acid in our cells carrying genetic information). It was discovered hair roots are also a good source for RNA. It was also suggested RNA is better protected in hair root cells than in blood samples.  

The Bottom Line

Proceed with...
Be Cautious About Hair Analysis. Richard Williams Photography / Getty Images

Hair analysis continues to grow in popularity and used by health practitioners for nutrition assessments. There seems to be a connection between diet plans and branded supplements which are big business in the health industry.

Unless other methods of clinical testing are done in combination with hair analysis, it sounds like “proceed with caution” needs to be taken. Commercial hair analysis hasn’t been proven accurate and laboratory testing procedures are shown to be skewed. 

Unless you’ve been exposed to mercury, a steroid user, require a paternity test or under criminal investigation, it appears hair analysis isn’t necessary. “Hair mineral analysis cannot be a primary tool for the assessment of individual health.”

According to Journal of the American Medical Association research, hair analysis is frowned upon for medically assessing “individual nutritional status or suspected environmental exposures.”  

Bonus Takeaway!

Woman laughing with friends during yoga class
Make the Right Choices for Your Health. Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

When it comes to health and fitness, become your own health care advocate.  Ask the tough questions and obtain reliable answers. Put in research enabling you to make the right choices for your health and body.

Eating foods and taking supplements based on unreliable testing procedures could potentially cause more harm than good. There will always be the next best test or quick fix diet making false promises.

Establishing truth or scam is where you take control of your health. Rely on the tried and true when it comes to eating right and losing fat. Diets containing a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, lean meats and healthy fats create healthy bodies. This well-known nutrition fact doesn’t require losing any hair.   

Sources:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Hair Analysis Panel Discussion: Executive Summary, 2/11/11

Annals of Dermatology, Reliability on Intra-Laboratory and Inter-Laboratory Data of Hair Mineral Analysis Comparing with Blood Analysis, Sun Namkoong et al., 2/4/13

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Health Care Providers, Analysis of Hair Samples: How do hair sampling results relate to environmental exposures

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Laboratory Services, Forensic Hair Comparison: Background Information for Interpretation, Cary T. Oien, Unit Chief, 4/09

Journal of Forensic Sciences, Abstract, Hair analysis of seven bodybuilders for anabolic steroids, ephedrine, and clenbuterol, Dumestre-Toulet V et al., 1/02

National Institutes of Health, Abstract, JAMA, Assessment of commercial laboratories performing hair mineral analysis, Seidel S et al., 2001

National Institutes of Health, Chemosphere, Abstract, Hair-biomonitoring of organic pollutants, Schramm KW, 7/08

Journal of Medical Genetics, Hair roots as the ideal source of mRNA for genetic testing, Kathy King et al., 2001

The Journal of the American Medical Association, Abstract, Commercial Hair Analysis, Science or Scam? Stephen Barrett, MD, 8/23/85

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