Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis

Human hair

Measuring the mineral content of hair may or may not be an accurate way to determine if there are deficiencies or an overabundance of a mineral that could cause health problems. It depends on whom you ask.

Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis

Hair tissue mineral analysis (HTMA) uses atomic spectroscopy, the same method used to test the mineral content of soil. A lab burns around 200 strands of hair, and the different minerals in the hair give off different colors. A measurement of the amount of each color against a benchmark determines if it falls within a healthy range.

What the Proponents Have to Say

Those in favor of the procedure say it is a screening test, playing a role in early detection of physical and mental disorders. They argue that deficiencies in trace elements, needed for an endless number of metabolic body functions, creates many health issues. For example, zinc is essential for insulin production and storage, magnesium for normal muscle function and potassium for nutrient transport in cells.

What the Opponents Have to Say

One of the largest opponents of using hair mineral analysis is the American Medical Association (AMA). It argues that there is a lack of consistency among labs that perform HTMA tests (for example, the benchmarks used to determine “normal” levels of minerals may be different), that samples become too easily contaminated by things such as pollution and shampoo, and that there is little evidence that people use the results to make wise health decisions. The AMA sees a great potential for health care fraud by unscrupulous labs.

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Dr. Michael Greenburg, the president of the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, sees some risk when untrained people interpret the results of HTMA tests. Among them are prescribing the wrong vitamins to treat ambiguous nutrient deficiencies, or strong medications to remove heavy metals that may in fact not exist. Both treatments could be harmful.

Hair Versus Blood

Blood test

The AMA feels that blood testing is a much more accurate method for determining levels of toxic metals in the body, arguing that with the exception of methyl mercury (the metal in fish), there are very few toxic minerals that an HTMA test can detect accurately.

On the other hand, many of the independent labs that specialize in HTMA testing argue that mineral deficiencies are detectable in hair long before they are in blood serum. Most cite a 1980 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said human hair was a better tissue than blood or urine for studying exposure to certain trace elements.

Should You Consider HTMA?

You probably should not consider HTMA, mainly because there is neither any regulation of the practice, nor do practitioners have to be medical doctors. Dr. Stephen Barrett, in his article “Commercial Hair Analysis: A Cardinal Sign of Quackery,” cites many legal cases where individuals (self-proclaimed nutritionists) or businesses (health food stores) were shut down or given hefty fines or even jail time and probation for prescribing treatments without a medical license, or engaging in fraudulent practices. Almost without exception, the true reason for the existence of these businesses is to sell vitamins, supplements and “treatments,” so they will likely always find something wrong.

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