Unfortunately, like many other testing methods, commercial hair analysis is not a perfect science and must be approached with caution.
Hair Analysis: An Overview and Problematic Reactions
A hair analysis, or Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA) test, is a lab test primarily utilized by nutritional balancing or nutritional counseling (NC) practitioners as a means to assess gross mineral imbalances and excess toxin levels in the body. Commonly sought by persons with MUS (medically unexplained symptoms), hair analysis test results provide a current report of both high and low levels of essential minerals and excessive amounts of toxins in the body. HTMA test results are most useful when interpreted by a certified NC, who provides an individualized, carefully designed program to correct and balance the body’s chemistry.
Post-hair analysis nutritional balancing programs are always tailored to each individual client, but generally include certain protocols such as: restrictive diets, specific supplements, meditation and important detoxification regimens. All HTMA program protocols are designed to work fast, which can present physically challenging difficulties.
When beginning a hair analysis guided nutritional balancing program for the first time, many people experience one or more uncomfortable reactions including:
- Herxheimer reactions: an immune system reaction to the endotoxins that are released when large amounts of pathogens are being killed off, and the body is not eliminating them quickly enough.
- Retracing reactions: although considered to be a prime indicator of improvement, a person begins to feel worse or experiences an aggravation of symptoms.
- Reactions from the release of toxic metals: often experienced by people with an excessive toxic build-up typically caused by long term toxic metal exposure.
Though considered normal, these three reactions are problematic because the discomfort can be quite debilitating. Some practitioners encourage clients to suffer through these reactions in order to detoxify and improve faster. Each individual body works at its own pace, but some bodies heal faster than others. Instead of experiencing one of the three common reactions, many people begin to suffer discomfort because their biochemistry has already changed and the initial dietary and supplemental recommendations are no longer appropriate to their current needs.
As the Body Heals, Hair Analysis Test Results and Recommendations Change Too
Sample hair is a tissue biopsy that reflects recently excreted minerals and toxic metals due to the circulating effect of the bloodstream. The whole human organism and how certain cells are utilizing toxic metals - because normal cellular processes are no longer working - affect what can be excreted into the hair.
Usually metabolic packs, glandular substances, minerals and vitamins are recommended by NCs to speed up or slow down the metabolism or adjust the sodium potassium ratio. It is much like playing tug of war, to dramatically shift electrolytes and homeostatic balances. More often than not, an individual receives a commercial hair analysis tissue biopsy and then continues taking the initially recommended supplements for far too long. After their biochemistry has shifted that person begins to experience a variety of negative symptoms and falsely thinks they are suffering from Herxheimer, retracing and/or toxic metal reactions. About 80% of problems encountered are actually due to the wrong Metabolic Pack, Glandular and sodium potassium adjuster being consumed – because the individual’s body biochemistry has already shifted.
Biochemistry Changes and their Impact on Hair Analysis Results
At certain times the body develops an increased requirement for certain minerals, and may retain minerals in tissues and organs for a variety of reasons. In those cases, more of the minerals will remain in the body and show a decrease of levels in the hair. Many of us have heard the story of people whose hair turned gray overnight. Manganese and iron color the hair and when the body needs those minerals it can borrow them from the hair and switch them for zinc and calcium, hence the person’s hair turns gray.
When levels of minerals and toxins leave tissues and organs it is called excretion. As they are excreted, minerals and toxins travel through the blood stream into the liver and kidneys causing higher levels to show up in the hair. The higher levels in the hair are temporary after excretion of a mineral, and often drop on a hair analysis retest.
The body also holds minerals in organs for future purposes and can mobilize them during times of need. For example, the liver is a storage location of copper, which can be released during times of infection to help kill pathogens. During mobilization the mineral can be made bio-available, where previously it was bio-unavailable. When a mineral has been mobilized often levels of the mineral rise in the hair. Whenever minerals are retained, excreted or mobilized there are always mineral compensations that occur to compensate for those changes which work to maintain critical levels and ratios. Then there is always mineral replacement where a more desirable mineral replaces a less desirable element in binding sites.
Due to the dynamics of mineral retention, excretion, mobilization, compensation and replacement, the interpretation of hair analysis laboratory results is complicated.
Problems with Commercial Hair Analysis: from Samples to Standards
1. Problems with Hair Sampling and Washing
A commercial hair analysis starts with a hair sample. Accredited HTMA labs agree that a hair sample should be collected directly at the scalp, and should be no longer than 1.5 inches. The ideal hair sample should also be trimmed to a half an inch and the extra sections of hair, furthest from the scalp, discarded. Why is this? Length of hair represents time. A half inch of head hear represents about one month’s time and the average predominate state of the metabolism. So, the shorter and closest to the scalp hair sample represents the most current metabolic state.
Most commercial hair analysis laboratories wash the hair sample before testing, which is not ideal. Washing the hair sample prior to testing reduces water-soluble minerals such as sodium, potassium and to some degree copper, magnesium, manganese, and zinc - consequently resulting in lower levels on the report.
Currently there are only two HTMA laboratories that do not wash the hair samples before processing: Analytical Research Laboratories and Trace Elements Inc. Although there has been excellent correlation between these two labs, their results consistently differ from other commercial hair analysis labs that choose to wash the hair sample immediately prior to testing. These resulting discrepancies - between washed and unwashed hair samples alone - have hurt the credibility of properly collected and submitted hair samples.
Other problems with hair samples stem from shampoo, home water, sample length, and limitations in the test itself. The facts are:
- Hair samples are affected by shampoos, hair products, bleaches, dyes and permanents.
- Some homes have water softeners and the hair is contaminated with excess sodium.
- Some hair samples are longer than 1.5” and do not provide current metabolic activity.
- Hair samples do not represent the total body load of minerals and toxic metals.
- Some beneficial minerals are also measured in unfavorable oxide forms.
2. Problems with Hair Analysis Testing Frequency Recommendations
Due to the circadian rhythm the metabolic rate of the human organism speeds up in the morning and slows down in the evening. Even various cells in the body have a slower metabolism than other cells. Then, depending on daily stress, the metabolism responds with an alarm or - with sustained stress - can collapse under exhaustion.
Hair analysis testing is limited to providing the average rate of metabolism over a certain period of time, after the fact. Since lifestyle, stress, nutrition and a variety of factors can quickly change the metabolism and state of minerals, hair analysis testing needs to be performed more frequently than once or twice a year. The limitations of hair analysis need to be acknowledged and appropriate testing frequency guidelines should be implemented to help nutritional counsellors guide more effective nutritional balancing programs.
3. Problems and Inconsistencies in Establishing “The Norm”
Industry wide problems with HTMA laboratory hair analysis testing standards of “normal levels” contribute to inaccuracies and discrepancies, such as:
- No standardized normal mineral levels. Analytical Research Laboratories and Trace Elements Inc. specify very similar standards, and are reliable.
- No standardized normal toxic metal levels. Analytical Research Laboratories and Trace Elements Inc. specify very similar standards, and are reliable.
- No standardized mineral ratios. Analytical Research Laboratories and Trace Elements Inc. specify very similar standards, and are reliable.
- No standardized toxic metal ratios. Analytical Research Laboratories and Trace Elements Inc. specify very similar standards, and are reliable.
Tips for Obtaining an Accurate Hair Analysis Test
Obtaining an accurate hair analysis test starts with choosing the right lab. If considering a hair analysis for the first time, opt to purchase a test kit that both performs testing and obtains results from either Analytical Research Laboratories or Trace Elements Inc. More importantly, seek the guidance of a certified nutritional balancing practitioner or nutritional counselor.
A few days before collecting a hair sample for testing, begin washing your hair in clean and uncontaminated water. If a water softener is being used in the home, the minerals used to soften the water will skew the test results. Hard water, which often contains excess iron or other elements, can also skew results. If a home water softener is installed or water is hard, opt to shampoo with distilled or purified water instead.
Avoid shampooing with medicated shampoos such as Selsun Blue, Head and Shoulders, and other generic brands. Medicated shampoos generally contain zinc and selenium, which causes zinc and selenium readings on hair analysis results to show extremely high. It is recommended that the medicated shampoo be discontinued for up to two weeks, and replaced with a natural non-toxic shampoo.
Freshly dyed hair is not ideal for sampling, and should be avoided. Wait for at least a half an inch of regrowth from the scalp, and cut the sample before the roots are dyed again. Stop using Grecian formula because it contains a significant amount of lead which will not only skew hair analysis test results, but contribute to lead exposure which is harmful to the body.
Tools and location for cutting a hair sample also matter. Do not use electric clippers or oily scissors. Use clean high-quality scissors so that metal shavings do not contaminate the hair sample. Make sure and collect enough hair from the back of your head, instead of pubic hair, arm pit hair or facial hair. Head hair provides the most accurate results, and is preferred; however, facial hair is second best and could be used as a last resort. Pubic hair is not recommended because the phosphorus level will be too high and the measurements of other minerals are not as accurate.
Once you have properly prepared and collected a hair sample, place the hair in a clean paper envelope. Do not put the hair in a plastic baggie. Nor use a rubber band, tin foil or scotch tape to secure the hair sample. Although a hair sample can be analyzed at any time (hair samples from mummies have even been analyzed for minerals and toxic metals), it is important to mail in your hair sample right after collection so lab testing can commence as soon as possible. Laboratory test results represent metabolic activity for the period of time that correlates to the length of the hair sample, and it is most meaningful to receive the results sooner than later.
Start a journal and write down your lifestyle, diet, symptoms, medications and other information that might be helpful when comparing your test results and future retests. Since guiding a health and wellness program with hair analysis will mean implementing changes along the way, it is a good idea to journal changes and experiences.
Get a hair analysis retest in three (3) months. Retesting is critical to a successful nutritional balancing and detoxification program, and will help optimize the metabolic rate with the least number of retracing symptoms.