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Hair Analysis

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Preventive Medicine

Question: A friend of mine persuaded me to get a hair analysis at the office of a doctor who practices by nutritional means of healing. When the report came back, I was a little miffed as it said I was low in magnesium, zinc, and iron. I have always prided myself on my well-balanced diet. I eat well, perhaps too well, and I don't think I should be low in any nutrients. Can I rely on that report? By the way, it also said I was high in lead and cadmium and I am a schoolteacher and not exposed to any industrial toxins. Can the report be correct, or was this a $37.00 rip-off?

Answer: Hair analysis, when performed by a qualified person, can be of use in the detection of toxic levels of such minerals as cadmium, methyl mercury, lead, and arsenic. Other tests are useful for confirmation. The color of the hair, location on the body from which the sample is taken, the age, race of the person, as well as the season of the year all have some bearing on the mineral content of human hair. Furthermore, there are no clear definitions of normal levels. Most of the information we have on mineral levels in hair comes from animal studies. Elements taken from the hair or added to it by environmental pollutants, shampoos, water, hair dyes, sprays, coloring agents, bleaches, and permanent waves all must be considered. The minerals found in your hair may or may not reflect the levels in your body, certainly will not reflect what your level is currently, and only indicates what your levels may have been in the past. It may be that a low level in the hair may not reflect a low level in the body, or vice versa.

With all these uncertainties about the method and the significance of reports, the testing of hair for nutrients contains another hazard - that of vested commercial interests in your test results. Companies doing hair analysis often want to sell the vitamins and minerals necessary to "restore your biochemical balance." Sometimes, the treatments and supplements recommended by these companies are not only not helpful, but may be actually dangerous.

At the present time, it is estimated that 200,000 Americans are spending possibly seven million dollars annually on hair analysis. I am far from certain that this money is well spent, and that the recipient of the test results is being benefited by having it. In one study, half of three samples of hair taken at the same time, cut up fine and mixed together to assure uniformity were sent to three different labs. One lab reported the sodium level as being too high, the second as just right, and third as too low. One lab claimed there was too little calcium, the second too much, and the third just right. The three labs tested for 23 minerals; they agreed in only five of the reports. Worse than this, the next week the other half of the samples were sent to the same labs and they did not agree with their own previously given reports.

It is possible, however, to get an accurate report from a laboratory doing hair analysis. From a well-controlled study, it was discovered that the hair from 24 young men between the ages of eight and 18 who had been arrested for some kind of violent delinquency, who lived in the same family, and ate the same food with an "all American boy" - a young man had never been in trouble, who was an excellent student, and whose incidence of violence was zero - that when hair samples from the violent boys and the all American types were sent to labs, that the violent boys registered abnormal readings for several elements, and that the non-violent boys had distinctive differences in the 11 elements tested. It was found that the violent groups were extremely high in lead, cadmium, iron, and calcium, and extremely low in zinc, lithium, and cobalt. None of the non-violent siblings exhibited either of these patterns.

A similar study done in a prison for violent criminals comparing the behavior data for four months prior to the removal of sugary junk foods from the diet of the detainees to that for three months following the diet change revealed that there was a drop in antisocial behavior. Checking every incident requiring official disciplinary action, the researchers found "an 82 percent reduction in assaults, 77 percent reduction in thefts, 65 percent reduction in horseplay, and 55 percent reduction in refusal to obey orders" (Science News 124: 122- 125, Aug. 20, 1983).

It may be that you are influencing the nutrients of your body by the fact that you "eat too well." Even though one eats plenty of good nutrients, the mineral balance in the body may be offset by the intake of foods that are not so good.

In answer to your question as to whether this represents a rip-off, you will need to check carefully on the qualification of the laboratory to which your sample of hair was submitted.

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