For all the attention and pricey primping my hair receives, I've always considered my long blonde locks to be short on usefulness -- until I heard about hair analysis. "It's a technique where a small piece of your hair is analyzed for its mineral content," nutrition consultant Michael Goldstein explained in an email from the Bristol Wellness Center. "When properly interpreted, a great volume of information about one's health can be determined from the relative balance among the minerals ... I develop specific mineral-balancing programs with supplements and dietary changes based on shifting the mineral pattern into a more balanced state."
I was skeptical, but curious enough to book an appointment. Goldstein explained how the test would measure 21 different minerals -- from the major electrolytes of calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium, to rare elements such as cobalt and lithium. He said he might find mercury from fish or old-style fillings; nickel from other dental work; cadmium from smoking, or any one of various toxins found in the environment. Because it measures accumulated minerals and toxins stored in the freshest inch-and-a-half of the hair, the analysis would show my body's response over a three-month period to food, exercise, stress and other aspects of my lifestyle. And while the test is a "screening," rather than a diagnosis, he said it can detect certain indicators of diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis.
"When calcium levels are extremely high, for example, they're what we call biounavailable," said Goldstein. "They're in the wrong places -- in the soft tissues, or not being metabolized properly."
For $165, Goldstein sends samples of his clients' hair to Analytical Research Labs in Phoenix; two weeks later, when the results arrive, he provides a detailed, in-person review of the findings and suggests a nutritional program to mitigate any problems the analysis turned up. The most common discovery, Goldstein revealed, is stress. "Job stress, money stress, relationship stress, car-breaking-down stress," he said. "Prolonged stress is very difficult for the adrenal glands." This, in turn, causes fluctuation in the four major minerals, which are also apparently associated with emotional states.
"You can see a person who's basically defensive, hostile, angry, aggressive, or someone who's open and accepting," Goldstein told me. "Mostly what I see is defensiveness and irritability; that's pretty common."
I tried to be open and accepting as Goldstein leaned across the table to snip a handful of my hair at Muddy Waters -- a strange activity, even in that ultra-cool cafe. After all, I felt great. During the three months prior to our first meeting, I'd experienced little stress and was taking daily supplements. I'd never felt happier or healthier. I know nobody's mineral levels are perfect, but I was fairly confident I would ace this test.
While I waited to hear back from Goldstein, I called a couple of his other clients, including "Survivor" celebrity Kathy O'Brien, about their hair-analysis experiences. "When I came back from 'Survivor,' I was struggling; there was a major shift in what my body had to go through," O'Brien explained. "I was feeling more upset stomachs; I just didn't feel light on my feet." O'Brien noticed she was putting on weight even though she was training and working out five times a week.
O'Brien's hair analysis indicated that she was a slow oxidizer, meaning she burned food slowly; it also signaled high stress levels. Following Goldstein's nutritional-balancing program, she cut out coffee, alcohol and sugars, added two hours of sleep per night and began taking supplements. "I'm starting to drop weight and I have better energy; I'm just feeling better," O'Brien said. "I do a whole different scene now ... if I'm feeling lousy, I get up in the morning and have broccoli and asparagus instead of scrambled eggs."
The thought of green vegetables for breakfast turned my stomach. That's when I started worrying about my own results. O'Brien conceded, "I found that I got depressed for the first seven or eight days picking it up and reading it." Another client, Mary Tozier of Ballston Spa, New York, also made me nervous. "You're not going to believe it," she said. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year, Tozier has been following the supplement suggestions and other recommendations -- such as drinking distilled water, throwing out her copper pots and having her mercury amalgam fillings removed. It's all led to a decrease in her symptoms. "I'm able to stand on my feet and work 12 hours a day as a pharmacist -- I'm fighting disability and always will be, and this is a big factor in helping me do so," Tozier said, adding, "Don't be alarmed by your report! You'll see some really interesting things."
Interesting, indeed. When Goldstein and I met again, he delivered the bad news: I was a nutritional failure. My calcium levels were off the charts -- 160 milligrams per 100 grams, compared to an optimal level of 40. Magnesium was also high; sodium and potassium were extraordinarily low.
"Why would my calcium be that high?" I asked. He said it could be a result of low protein consumption, abnormal thyroid activity, lead or stress.
Might a more plausible explanation be the calcium supplements I'd been taking?
"Yes, absolutely," Goldstein conceded. "Depending on the type of calcium you take, and how well your body is able to keep calcium soluble. You need adequate potassium to do this, and your level is very low. If we can get your potassium to go up, your calcium will come down to a bioavailable range ... the ratio of your calcium to magnesium also has a lot to do with it."
Like 74 percent of Goldstein's clients, I was shown to be a slow oxidizer. Apparently, I also had a pattern associated with allergies, adrenal insufficiency, depression, hypothyroidism, hypotension, fatigue, low libido and glucose intolerance. Curiously I hadn't ever felt any of these symptoms -- except maybe the occasional touches of fatigue and low libido, but who hasn't? My iron levels were also low, Goldstein said. Never mind that a blood test taken the week I'd had my hair sampled revealed healthy iron levels.
I poked around for an explanation. "The state of the health of the body may be entirely unrelated to the physical and chemical condition of the hair," researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association some 30 years ago, when hair analysis first became popular among holistic healers. In 2001, JAMA published a study showing hair-mineral analyses vary wildly among labs, with the authors recommending that health-care practitioners "refrain from using such analyses to assess individual nutritional status or suspected environmental exposures."
Hair analysts countered this report by explaining that some labs wash the hair, which produces inaccurate results; the Phoenix lab that tested my hair, one of the most reputable, leaves the hair intact. But its founder also makes several of the supplements that Goldstein subsequently recommended: eight different products, to be taken three times a day, at an estimated quarterly cost of $180 to $225. It seemed a little excessive for a healthy, happy woman of 32.
It's been a week now, though, and I haven't tossed the results. Why? A sports nutritionist friend in Colorado confirmed that, from the sound of it, my calcium pills were probably giving me too much of a good thing. I've booked a doctor's appointment to have my thyroid checked, and am seriously considering following Goldstein's program -- even undergoing another hair analysis in the late summer. After a few months of paying closer attention to my nutrition and doing some more pricey primping, we'll see what the hair has to say.