One of my favorite films of 2014 was The Internet’s Own Boy, a film that chronicled the life and death of boy genius and anti-authoritarian activist, Aaron Swartz. Almost immediately after the film was over (you can watch it here on YouTube), I remember reaching out to my friend Karen to tell her how much I enjoyed the film. Half way into our conversation we both noted that Aaron had a great head of hair, and Karen went on to say that she noticed that Aaron’s hair seemed to dim during the times of the film that the documentary discussed Aaron’s digestive ailment, Crohn’s disease.
The connection between health and hair growth is not fringe and has been widely discussed over the last few decades. As early as 1993, it was known that baldness was associated with developing heart disease[1,2,3,4]. Later, baldness was found to be related to other problems like metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, reduced bone mineral density, and cancer.
The evidence that hair growth and health are interconnected doesn’t appear to have penetrated the mainstream, and instead, you’re likely to be blunted over the head with an endless array of pseudo-intellectual blowhards progressing the idea that baldness is simply the result of bad genes and excess masculinity. Their science comprises of rattling off model after model of ever growing complexity that is divorced from the individual and their environment. This compartmentalized anti-science approach to hair loss is often reflected in the phases of the hair growth cycle or the mosaic cycle.
I: The Mosaic Cycle
Hair follicles go through a cyclical growth phase composed of three phases: anagen, the phase of active growth; catagen, the phase of regression; and telogen, the resting period. The proportion of anagen follicles is highest in childhood and lowest in old age, and there are small, relatively constant variations in different regions of the scalp.
When a hormone or drug is said to increase the anagen growth of hair sometimes the substance is deemed good or useful for hair growth. For example, finasteride can increase the anagen growth of hair follicles, but also may be carcinogenic. Similarly, the hormone-like unsaturated fatty acid breakdown product, prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), is said to promote anagen growth and is also associated with cancer.[10,11] Substances that promote growth like finasteride or PGE2 stimulate mitosis, which might appear to have a “positive” effect on hair growth while having a negative systemic effect on the organism. Thus, I think it’s important to attempt to understand the overall physiology of the balding person and hair growth rather than identifying substances that simply promote anagen growth.
Similar to bone marrow, skin, intestine, and other highly proliferative glucose-dependent tissues, the hair follicle is composed of rapidly dividing cells that convert more than 85% of their glucose to lactic acid via glycolysis (fermentation). When the various glucose pathways are studied in growing and resting follicles, the metabolic activities are found to be much higher during the growing anagen phase. For example, in growing follicles glucose utilization increases 200%, glycolysis 200%, the activity of pentose phosphate cycle 800%, metabolism by other pathways 150%, and ATP production via the respiratory chains 270%.