There are many different types of hair out there, and we all want what’s best for ours. After all, the hair is often one of the most prominent aspects of a person’s physical appearance, likely second only to one’s face. And given the choice, who among us wouldn’t want healthy, lustrous hair to style as we see fit? If our hair didn’t matter to us in a collective sense, there wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar hair care industry peddling their products on the market. The problem is that many of these products contain harmful chemicals that can have an extremely detrimental impact on both the hair and critical internal systems like the endocrine and nervous systems. Unfortunately, most hair products only manage to treat the hair superficially—and sometimes only temporarily—often damaging the hair in the process.
The Ayurvedic approach is different. Ayurvedic hair care employs both products and treatment strategies that are 100% natural. Furthermore, the Ayurvedic tradition is intrinsically holistic. So whether you choose a topical treatment for the hair itself, a more systemic approach, or a combination of the two, Ayurveda aims to address the root cause of the problem—which often originates well beneath the surface. In fact, one of the foundational principles of Ayurveda is that the strength of agni (the digestive fire) determines the quality of nourishment received by organs and tissues throughout the body, including the hair. So according to Ayurveda, the health of the hair begins with the food we eat, and depends deeply on our digestive strength—as does the health of every other tissue and system. That said, our bodies are vastly intelligent and its systems exquisitely interdependent, so our hair can also be affected by imbalances outside of the digestive tract, unique personal and hereditary vulnerabilities, as well as our stress levels and the overall quality of our lives.
Despite being over 5,000 years old, Ayurveda offers quite an impressive number of treatment strategies for optimizing hair health, all of which remain relevant today. What follows is an introduction to Ayurvedic hair care—from theory to practice. Our intention is to support you in expanding your understanding of the Ayurvedic approach, and to give you the practical tools to optimize your hair’s strength, abundance, luster, and shine.
Common Terms Used to Describe Different Hair Types
Thin: fewer individual hairs on the head. Thick: an abundance of individual hairs on the head. Fine: each strand of hair is narrow. Coarse: each strand of hair is broad.
Ayurveda’s View of the Hair Your hair, when it is healthy, reflects your constitution—your unique ratio of vata, pitta, and kapha. And because we each have all three doshas in our constitutions, it is entirely possible (common, even) for our hair to express a combination of different doshic characteristics. In other words, it is rare to find someone with exclusively vata-type hair, pitta-type hair, or kapha-type hair. You will likely recognize traits from at least two doshas in your hair, and possibly all three.
Ayurvedic Hair Types Healthy Vata-Type Hair is relatively thin, but often a bit coarse, may be straight, curly, or a combination of the two, grows quickly, and can be a bit unruly—potentially making it more challenging to style. Healthy Pitta-Type Hair is straight, soft, predictable, and of moderate thickness, but very fine. Healthy Kapha-Type Hair is typically wavy, lustrous, full, strong, coarse, and thick. If your hair health is currently compromised, it is important to assess your natural hair type based on life-long patterns, before you noticed your hair beginning to change. And remember, the Ayurvedic approach is not about trying to alter the fundamentals of your hair, but rather about inviting it to be its absolute best. This is an important distinction because our culture tends to regard healthy kapha-type hair as especially desirable, and many of us develop the idea that our natural hair type is somehow inadequate. While most of us stand to benefit from Ayurveda’s rich hair care traditions, we must also learn to celebrate our unique natural beauty along the way.
Common Imbalances On the other hand, imbalances can and quite often do impact both the strength and appearance of our hair. And this can absolutely be remedied. The following symptoms may help to give you an idea of which dosha(s) may be compromising your hair:
Excess Vata causes the hair to be dry, frizzy, brittle, and lusterless. It also causes the hair to thin, fall out in clumps, become shorter and more difficult to grow out, and present with split ends. Excess Pitta causes excess heat in the hair follicles, which can damage the hair and lead to premature thinning, early greying, and baldness. Heat in the hair follicles is often accompanied by a tendency to be hot-headed, short-tempered, or excessively ambitious.
Excess Kapha causes excessive oiliness, heaviness, and thickness in the hair. Making Deeper Connections According to Ayurveda, the hair is a byproduct of the bone tissue, as are the nails and teeth, making all of these tissues intimately connected. The hair is also linked to the nervous system and the gut, so if the health of any of these tissues deteriorates, the hair is likely to be affected. Similarly, if the quality of nutrition available to the deep tissues of the body is compromised, the hair will undoubtedly be impacted. This is where Ayurveda’s whole-body approach can be infinitely more effective than superficial hair treatments alone.
Banyan friend, Elena The Role of Stress Chronic or excessive stress can be a remarkably important consideration as well, particularly with vata- or pitta-type hair imbalances—which are the most common. This is because, from the body’s perspective, the human stress response is geared toward increasing our chances of survival, and it only occurs when the body perceives that our survival may be threatened. These days, few sources of stress are truly life-threatening, but the nervous system doesn’t know this, and the cascade of hormones released when we are under stress is exactly the same, whether we are cramming to meet a deadline at work, or being chased by a hungry lion. As it is designed to do, the stress response re-allocates bodily resources to help us survive the danger. Our heart rate increases, more energy is made available to the brain and large muscle groups, and our digestive and immune functions are sidelined. This is an exquisitely intelligent adaptation, and is not at all problematic, provided we encounter stress relatively infrequently (so that the body has ample opportunity to return to its natural state of equilibrium). Unfortunately, when stress becomes chronic, it begins to rob many of our tissues of the nutrition they need in order to maintain optimal health, and it can send the body into a self-perpetuating cycle of depletion. In this scenario, the bone tissue is vulnerable because the stress response increases the activity of cells that disassemble and break-down bone tissue (osteoclasts), thereby hindering the body’s capacity to maintain bone health. And if the bones are struggling to meet their own nutritional needs, the hair is invariably going to suffer as well.
All of this is to say that if stress is a familiar player in your day-to-day experience, stress-management may actually be an important element of your hair care regimen. If you are interested in a more in-depth exploration of stress and its role in our overall health, please see our Guide to Stress Management. A Long Legacy of Holistic Hair Care At its root, Ayurvedic hair care is largely about rejuvenation—for the hair, for specific tissues that may be affecting hair health, and for the body as a whole. Ayurveda has an entire limb devoted to rejuvenation (rasayana, in Sanskrit), which is the practice of offering deep nourishment (at a cellular level) to encourage the healing and regeneration of bodily tissues and systems. Closely related to this concept of rejuvenation is the role of the anupan, a carrier substance which helps to "carry" herbs deeper into the tissues. (For more information on Ayurvedic carrier substances, see our guide.) The following herbs are exceptionally revered for their capacity to promote the strength, luster, thickness, and overall health of the hair—largely due to their nourishing and rejuvenative properties. You will notice that these herbs make recurring appearances in the formulas and recommendations that follow.
Bhringaraj. Otherwise known as the “ruler of the hair,” bhringaraj is a cooling herb that has a strong affinity for the roots of the hair. It has long been appreciated for its ability to encourage abundant hair growth, protect the hair’s natural color and luster, while cooling the head and calming the mind. Though balancing for all three doshas, its cooling nature gives bhringaraj a particular capacity to pacify excess pitta, which can burn the hair follicles, damage the hair, and cause early greying or hair loss.