I discovered my love of liver as an exchange student in Finland (Hyvä Soumi!). All Finnish students enjoy freshly prepared (and free) meals at school everyday. One day we were served an especially tasty casserole at lunch– I had to ask, “What is this?” The response was maksalaatiko, but that unfortunately didn’t mean much to me, so I tried again, “What’s this made of?” After a quick game of telephone, a translation came back: it’s liver! Momentarily surprised by my palette, I continued gobbling it up.
Years later, as I was trying to rebuild my internal health as a way of improving hair growth, I discovered that beef and chicken liver provide a unique combination of vitamins and minerals that support hair growth from the inside out. The iron, copper, B12, and amino acids found in liver work together to nourish our rapidly dividing hair follicle cells. This article discusses the relationship between these nutrients and healthy hair growth. Plus, I will share a recipe for that delicious Finnish liver-bake and a few ways to match the nutritional profile of liver if you eat vegetarian or just aren’t a fan of the flavor.
Before we get into the nutrient profile of liver, I want to touch on how eating liver could fit into a holistic hair growth plan. Holistic healing depends on finding and addressing the primary root causes of hair loss. At a high level, there are three main causes of hair loss; stress, nutrient deficiency, and hormone imbalance. All three of these potential roots are interrelated, meaning they can affect one another, with the final result usually being insufficient cellular support at the hair follicle. If nutrient deficiency is a known part of your hair loss cycle, then liver may have a lot to offer you!
Grass fed beef or organic chicken liver supports hair growth by providing a mineral that is essential to the health of our blood; iron. Our body relies on optimal iron levels to build red blood cells, synthesize DNA, move oxygen through our blood, and produce energy in the mitochondria of our cells (1). Iron is a key player in these truly essential physiological functions that maintain total body health and the quality of our hair.
Before I explain the importance of iron for hair growth it’s helpful to take a moment to remember that your body is a collection of trillions of cells working together. It’s a phenomenal ecosystem of living cells that communicate and collaborate to keep you alive. If we think of the body as a collaborative, egalitarian system, nourishing healthy hair is a relatively low priority compared to supporting the internal organs or maintaining muscle mass. From this perspective, nourished hair is a reflection of healthy internal systems.
Iron is an essential mineral for our bodily systems because iron supports the health of individual cells. For example, iron is necessary for the production of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout the body. Oxygen is essential for our cells to thrive and divide. The mitochondria of our cells receive oxygen and use it to create cellular energy. (In technical circles, cellular energy goes by the acronym ATP; adenosine triphosphate.) Our cells need energy to complete their daily functions, and divide into more cells when needed. The ability of our cells to divide (which means synthesizing DNA) is especially important for hair growth, because hair follicles cells are some of the most rapidly dividing cells in the human body.
Iron deficiency alone can cause hair loss and occurs more often in menstruating and pregnant women. If you’re working to rebuild your iron stores, eating iron rich foods like liver may be preferable to taking supplements because the copper content in beef liver supports iron absorption.
*Work with your doctor to assess your iron levels before starting a supplement or diet plan. Iron is great for our health when we can maintain ideal levels, but excessive iron intake will build up in the body, become toxic to our cells, and can cause hair loss.
Liver is known to be a great source of iron, but it’s also a great source of copper. A 100g serving of liver can provide up to 1084% of the FDA’s daily value recommendation, depending on how it’s prepared (2). Copper improves iron absorption by escorting iron into the cell and helping to maintain the natural recycling of iron (3). These two minerals work in tandem to support the health of our cells (4).
This natural, bio-available dose of copper has also been shown to support thyroid health. If you struggle with low thyroid levels, adequate copper intake can increase thyroid hormone production and regulate thyroid absorption by controlling the body’s calcium levels (5). The thyroid is a hugely important gland for metabolism and cellular energy. Thyroid hormone affects every organ system and influences metabolism in every cell of our bodies (6). Low thyroid levels have been linked to hair loss because hair follicle cells cannot rapidly divide without strong metabolism. Alternatively, high thyroid levels can also trigger hair loss by increasing oxidative stress at the hair follicle (7).
If you’re experiencing hair loss it is supremely important that you get your thyroid levels evaluated by a professional. I’m certainly all-in for holistic lifestyle choices to improve hair growth, but I appreciate that there are many health issues that benefit from pharmaceutical interventions including hypothyroidism. As Dr. Lara Briden ND mentions in her book Period Repair Manual, “I consider thyroid hormone (even Levothyroxine) to be a natural and highly beneficial treatment. If your blood test says that you require it, I encourage you to take it.”
Liver is also an excellent source of vitamin B12. In fact, liver led to the discovery of B12 as an essential nutrient and the 1934 Nobel Prize in medicine. In 1934, Drs. Minot, Murphy, and Whipple shared the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology by curing pernicious anemia with a high liver diet. First, Whipple discovered that acutely anemic dogs that were fed raw liver (instead of the usual cooked liver) recovered much faster. Minot and Murphy offered a raw liver diet to their pernicious anemia patients and found an immediate cure for the condition. Up until this discovery, a pernicious anemia diagnosis was fatal within 3 years. Later, scientists Rickes and Smith isolated B12 as the active element in the liver treatment (8).
Just like iron, B12 is necessary for red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis (9). This water soluble vitamin comes exclusively from animal based foods (eg meat, dairy, eggs, yeast products), so if you eat vegan it’s important to seek out B12 in a supplement or yeast form. B12 deficiency isn’t directly linked to hair loss, but because we know the rapidly dividing hair follicle cells are constantly replicating DNA and these cells suffer without sufficient blood flow, I would venture to say that a little extra B12 can’t hurt and nutritional science seems to agree. Because B12 is water-soluble and non-toxic specialists haven’t established an upper limit for B12 intake (10). For example the natural antidepressant formula, Eskaloft, provides a 83,333% DV dose of B12.
Why would a natural antidepressant include such a large dose of B12? Well, in addition to supporting DNA synthesis, B12 has been shown to support folks struggling with the symptoms of depression (11). This potential benefit of B12 pairs nicely with the challenges of hair loss, as most of us know the psychological effects of hair loss can easily spin into a depressive episode (12).
Liver also provides an excellent source of an essential micronutrient; protein. The amino acids contained in protein are required to form keratin, the physical structure of our hair. Do you know if you’re getting enough protein? That may be a difficult question to answer because “enough protein” is a somewhat controversial topic in health and medicine. The debate centers around the potential for high protein intake to cause cancer versus the long term health benefits of maintaining muscle mass.
Some medical practitioners caution against overloading our diets with protein, citing evidence in animal and epidemiological studies that positively correlate high protein intake with cancer and all-cause mortality (13,14). Alternatively, Drs. Rhonda Patrick and Peter Attia point out that the benefits of exercise (especially strength training) outweigh the benefits of protein restriction.
The United States government modestly recommends 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 g per pound. This Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the minimum requirement to prevent deficiency and illness. Dr. Peter Attia recommends more than twice the RDA at 2g/kg or about 1g/lbs of body weight. His protein recommendations are meant to be paired with a vigorous strength training routine aimed at building and maintaining muscle mass because, as Attia points out, muscle mass, overall strength, and in particular grip strength are strongly associated with longevity (15).
I track my protein intake daily and try to eat far more protein than the RDA. Though I will have to try even harder to meet Attia’s recommendation on protein (and strength training). If you’ve never tracked your protein intake, I highly recommend it! You’d be surprised how little protein is in an egg when you’re trying to eat 80-100grams/day.
Perhaps you already knew liver was a hair growth superfood, but you also know that you do not like it so you’re reading on in search of the alternative? I’ll get to that momentarily, but if you’re open to giving liver one more taste; you’ve got to try this recipe.
While I first discovered this dish during my school days, I later learned it’s traditionally a holiday dish. The strong liver flavor is nicely counterbalanced with raisins and a touch of molasses. I recommend pureeing the liver for a pleasant consistency.
This recipe isn’t overly complicated, but it does require ~ 1.5 hour time commitment (and it’s much easier if you have a food processor handy).
It’s hard to top the nutrient profile of beef liver, but piecing together different sprouted, fermented, and yeast-based foods can help you come close. Check out this table of plant-based options. (Liver listed for reference)
It’s important to note that plant-based sources of iron are more difficult for your body to digest and absorb. The bioavailability of heme-iron (animal sources) is greater than vegetarian sources.
I hope I’ve sufficiently inspired you to give liver a try! This oft-neglected cut has so much to offer our rapidly dividing hair follicle, nourishing our hair at the cellular level. If you’re trying to support hair growth by maintaining adequate iron stores, healthy thyroid function, and seeking out lean sources of protein, then liver really does it all!
I was alarmed by this massive daily value percentage, 1084% is a huge dose, but reassured by reading that our bodies can excrete unnecessary copper through the digestive system.
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