More omega-3 and less omega-6 in the diet reduces dandruff.
We’ve been sold a bill of goods on dandruff. Excessive itching and flaking of skin in the scalp is usually not due to the wrong shampoo. The root cause of dandruff is inside you, beginning with what you eat. “It has been my experience over 30 years of nutritional counseling that numerous people, myself included, notice that their dandruff situation improves significantly after adopting a whole-foods, vegan diet,” according to Michael Klapper, M.D., director of the Institute of Nutrition Education and Research and a member of the Nutrition Task Force of the American Medical Student Association.
To be clear, Dr. Klapper isn’t discussing fungal or bacteriological infections, such as folliculitis (inflammation of the hair follicles), eczema, dermatitis or several other skin conditions described in this article on hairlosschat.com. He’s addressing the very common condition of natural but excessive shedding of skin, a universal human experience that happens by varying degrees among individuals.
All skin, from head to toe, sheds and is replaced every two to four weeks (faster when you’re younger, slower as you age). But exactly how this happens might well be a function of the foods we eat, says Klapper.
“[These] observations and speculations are my own conclusions drawn from clinical experience,” he says, adding, “I have not encountered scientific studies to confirm the proposed mechanisms.” But his observations are echoed elsewhere by reputable, credentialed sources.
When dietary fat causes dandruff
What specific dietary factors are involved? “I believe that there may be at least two biochemical mechanisms that could explain this observation,” says Klapper. Both mechanisms relate to the types of fat one consumes. He explains that in his practice he “virtually never” sees oily skin on vegans. Why? “Plant oils are generally less viscous than animal fats. The less viscous plant oils may be less prone to dry and flake on the skin surface, thus less likely to contribute to dandruff shedding.”
How is this different for carnivores? “My dermatologic patients over the years who complain of “oily skin” are overwhelmingly flesh-eaters,” he notes.
The second mechanism is the balance of omega-3 to omega-6 oils, the former found in plants and fish and the latter in animal fats. “The omega-3 oils in many plant foods are less inflammatory than the pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid found in animal fats –another factor that may make vegans less prone to itchy, inflamed skin that often accompanies dandruff.”
So while Klapper is careful to qualify that these are his clinical observations, he’s far from alone in making these claims. Dr. Andrew Weil (www.DrWeil.com), whose popular online health advice website popularizes a blend of preventive and treatment-oriented health care, encourages people with dandruff to supplement their diets with foods high in gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA, which is sourced from evening primrose oil, black currant oil and borage oil. Note that GLA is technically an omega-6, but only a small quantity is required. Additionally, Weil recommends freshly ground flaxseed, plus fish oils in pill form or from the cold-water fish such as sardines, wild Alaska salmon, herring, anchovies and mackerel.
How to eat omega-3s (and avoid omega-6s) to reduce dandruff
The foods highest in omega-6 fatty acids are impossible to avoid altogether and indeed play a role in human nutrition. The problem is that modern farming methods and Western food culture have skewed the omega-6 intake to disproportionately overwhelming that of the omega-3.
For example, most beef, pork, chicken, and eggs are from animals fed grain, which was not their feed a century or longer ago. When cattle grazed naturally, the nutrients from leafy, green plants led to both lower fat levels and two to four times the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in beef. Only pasture-raised, grass-fed cows, pigs, and chickens (which outside of cages can absorb sunlight to increase vitamin D levels as well) contain an optimal, natural omega-6/omega-3 balance. Other foods high in omega-6s are animal organs and farm-raised catfish and tilapia, the latter two owing to feeds used to raise fish.
Given that so much of what we eat is larded up with omega-6, arachidonic acids, the following foods can help restore the balance — and perhaps help you beat dandruff:
Flaxseed (crushed): 2 ounces has 7 grams of omega-3s
Extra virgin olive oil: 2 ounces has 7 grams of omega-3s
Walnuts: 2 ounces has 2.3 grams of omega-3s
Chinook salmon: 4 ounces has 2 grams of omega-3s
Soybeans, navy beans and kidney beans: 1 cup has 0.2 to 1.0 gram of omega-3s
Halibut: 4 ounces has 0.6 gram of omega-3s
Tuna: 4 ounces has 0.4 gram of omega-3s
Winter squash: 1 ounce has 0.2 gram of omega-3s
Spinach: 4 ounces has 0.1 gram of omega-3s
Kale: 4 ounces has 0.1 gram of omega-3s
Dandelion greens: 4 ounces has 0.1 gram of omega-3s
Collard greens: 4 ounces has 0.1 gram of omega-3s
Shampoos may work to temporarily rid your scalp of dandruff, but if your diet remains heavy in factory-farmed meats but low in omega-3-rich plants, nuts and fish, you might be fighting itchy, scaly dandruff for years into the future. As most foods naturally high in omega-3s are healthy for a host of reasons, allow that to be your additional incentive to fight dandruff with diet.