A Review of Hair Analysis
By Kate Hester

Does your horse have a long-term condition that has defied diagnosis or correction by your veterinarian or other practitioners? Do his blood tests indicate "normal" levels in all categories? Do all efforts to adjust his diet, supplements, medications and activity levels fail to produce a vibrant healthy horse? It may be time to consider the possible usefulness of hair analysis.

Hair analysis and blood analysis each present different views of the body. Blood is constantly changing, reacting almost instantly at times to things ingested or to physical stresses. A blood test offers a "snapshot" view of the body, and results can fluctuate with the time of day or season of the year, emotional changes, or foods eaten prior to taking the sample. Even the stress surrounding the vet's drawing of the blood can produce changes.

While blood and serum do contain minerals, they may not be completely representative of the body's mineral storage. In some cases, the serum level of minerals is maintained at the expense of tissue concentration by homeostatic mechanisms. Calcium loss can become so advanced that severe osteoporosis can develop without any appreciable changes noted in the calcium levels in a blood test. Serum levels of lead may be undetectable a few weeks after an acute exposure, as the body mechanisms remove the lead from the blood and deposit it into the liver, bones, teeth and hair.

Blood tests are valuable indicators, though, of sudden onset or acute health problems. Additionally, blood tests are well accepted by the medical community. Testing procedures have been highly refined and regulated to give consistent results by laboratories, according to standardized procedures for sample collection and preparation.

Hair analysis, on the other hand, reflects another view of the body. The hair grows continually, but slowly, and is composed of the nutrients or toxic elements that are present and bioavailable in the body. Hair analysis, when properly conducted and interpreted, can give clues to long-term conditions that are not revealed by blood tests. It is also used as a reliable indicator of past cocaine or nicotine use in humans. Whereas blood tests can give information about many different enzymes, hormones and other vital activities in the body, hair analysis focuses primarily on mineral levels in the body.

Minerals are involved in almost every metabolic activity in the body. They are the "sparkplugs" that trigger the enzyme reactions that maintain the living body. Mineral imbalances can have many causes: improper diet, physical and emotional stress which can deplete certain minerals and also can cause poor nutrient absorption, medications which can deplete the body's store of nutrient minerals as well as elevate toxic mineral levels, environmental pollution, incorrect nutritional supplementation which can result in mineral excesses or deficiencies, and inherited predisposition to imbalances.

The mineral content of the hair reflects the mineral content of the body over a period of time. The minerals present may reflect exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides, or may be absorbed from liniments or shampoos, in addition to minerals derived from the diet. The minerals and toxins that are present in the blood in very dilute and sometimes indiscernible amounts are incorporated into the protein structure of the hair in much higher concentrations. If a mineral deficiency or excess exists in the hair, it indicates a deficiency or excess in the body, or an inability of the body to absorb or utilize minerals. The test results may be indicative of a past or present imbalance.

Although hair analysis is considered by the government and establishment to be accurate for cocaine and nicotine level results, it is not generally endorsed as a viable test for diagnosis. There are several valid reasons for this: standardized testing procedures have not been established, normal ranges of hair minerals have not been well defined, and hair analysis does not necessarily reflect current mineral levels in the body. For these reasons, if you choose to use this procedure, it is important to understand the limitations of the information provided by the analysis and to obtain the analysis and interpretation from a professional who is experienced in using this test.

Biochemist Linsey McLean of Vita Royal is one such professional. For 23 years, she has collected data from hair analysis results (human and equine), refining the numbers for symptoms, age, sex, breed, color, geographic region, feed, and season. This approach differs from the widely accepted laboratory standards that were set by taking hair, tissue and organ samples from an arbitrary number of slaughter horses, without regard to symptomatology. Linsey was privileged for many years to have access to information gathered from hair analysis research by one laboratory. She established her own reference values, further refined from the original numbers, and factored in the environmental pollution impact on general biochemistry both locally and countrywide.

Various samples were evaluated to determine which body hair of the horse would give the closest match to tissue samples, and it was discovered that the chest hair would give the best reading. Hair should ONLY be taken from the brisket/chest area of the horse, as not all areas of the body correlate well to tissue levels. If the hair is very long, like winter hair, the area should be clipped to half-inch and the long hair discarded. Then the area should be re-clipped and used for the test. This will give the half-inch closest to the body and the most recent growth, which will better reflect the current body conditions. Other areas of the body, including mane and tail hair or belly hair, do not accurately reflect tissue levels.

Linsey has accumulated her data over the span of 24 years and uses it to monitor the environmental impact on biochemistry of both horses and humans. Including humans, who are omnivores, as well as horses, which are grazing vegetarians, has provided a useful model to track and also predict the epidemiology of newly emerging opportunistic infections like EPM, as they course through a population. Her careful development of this model has enabled her to stay a step ahead of the disease in nutritional assessment and therapy. Commonalities of biochemical compromises can be better evaluated, which leads to better methods of addressing all of the many manifestations of Environmental Illness.

Linsey does not recommend hair analysis as a primary diagnostic tool, because the widespread impact of environmental chemicals on living bodies has negatively impacted the ability of all living things to absorb and utilize minerals. However, she does occasionally recommend the test to check for heavy metals or when a long-term problem is not successfully corrected by routine treatments. According to Linsey, hair analysis can sometimes point out possible causes of chronic and long-term problems such as arthritis, anemia, allergies, asthma, diabetes, hypoglycemia, acne, heavy metal poisoning (lead, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, mercury), various sleep disturbances, some learning disabilities, many fertility problems, weight problems, depression, hyperactivity, headaches, chronic infections, abnormal graying of hair, nervousness, irregular heart beat, cravings for abnormal food stuffs, poor healing of wounds, and sometimes aggression. She explains that the hair analysis does not definitively identify the problem or diagnosis, but it will support or eliminate possible conditions, thus aiding in diagnosis and treatment. The hair analysis alone is not a reliable tool for recommending vitamins, minerals or other dietary supplements.

An extensive case history is required for a Vita Royal hair analysis for horses. The questionnaire is available on the Vita Royal web site. Until such time as procedures for hair analysis have been standardized, reference ranges have been accurately identified, and the presence of trace elements in body tissues is understood much more clearly, hair analysis will remain a tool of limited value. It is, however, an important tool that should not be completely overlooked in all cases.

For more information, visit Linsey McLean's website at www.vitaroyal.com.

About the author:
Kate Hester is a freelance equine journalist and regular contributor to Natural Horse Magazine. She is caretaker of their many horses from miniatures to drafts, cows and calves, chickens, llamas, and other animals at Lazy Dog Farm.