Hair loss is a condition that affects millions of men and women worldwide (1). There are a variety of causes and, because of this, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment or cure.
But one factor that you may be able to control is your diet.
Your dietary intake can have a large impact on the functioning of your bodily systems. This is true for functions even as ‘simple’ as hair growth.
If you can get your diet right, half the battle is won.
In this article, you’ll learn about the diet that may be most likely to contribute to a healthy scalp and hair. And while this diet may not work for everyone, it can be the first step in the right direction.
NOTE: These aren’t separate diets, they should all be used in combination, but I’ve broken them down separately for clarity and to show how they relate to hair loss.
IMPORTANT! Before making any drastic changes to your diet, it’s important to speak with your doctor.
Watch our video on the topic if you prefer watching to reading:
An Alkaline Diet
One of the quickest and most effective things you can change in your diet today is the acid/alkaline balance of your diet.
Just like any organism, the human body has a preferred pH – 7.4 (2).
It is at this level that all of the bodily functions on a cellular level work at optimum efficiency. However, when the pH of our body goes outside this balanced pH, really bad (and sometimes unusual) things start to happen.
One thing that may throw the body’s pH out of alignment is our modern diet.
The typical modern diet is highly acidic. It contains red meats, dairy, simple carbohydrates (such as processed grains and white sugar) and alcohol. And when these foods are consumed as part of a regular diet, they can wreak havoc on the body.
According to a 2011 review study, high acidity levels within the body can lead to hormone fluctuations and nutrient/mineral imbalance (3).
On the other hand, vegetables, fresh fruits, raw soaked nuts and seeds, and many herbs can have an alkalizing effect once metabolized and are, therefore, a much better choice for your body.
But what effects exactly does an alkaline diet have on the body?
- Increased fruits and vegetables in an alkaline diet would improve the K/Na ratio and may benefit bone health, reduce muscle wasting, as well as mitigate other chronic diseases such as hypertension and strokes.
- The resultant increase in growth hormone with an alkaline diet may improve many outcomes from cardiovascular health to memory and cognition.
- An increase in intracellular magnesium, which is required for the function of many enzyme systems, is another added benefit of the alkaline diet. Available magnesium, which is required to activate vitamin D, would result in numerous added benefits in the vitamin D apocrine/exocrine systems.
- Alkalinity may result in added benefit for some chemotherapeutic agents that require a higher pH.
A well-balanced metabolic and enzymatic system is crucial for proper bodily functioning, and this includes ‘non-essential’ functions such as hair growth.
However, an alkaline diet may also have a more direct effect on hair growth.
Alkalinity has been shown to inhibit the enzyme 5-alpha-reductase which plays a large role in the production of DHT (one of the triggers of pattern baldness) (4). Will less DHT present in the body, there can be less of a chance of hair follicle miniaturization and balding as a result.
A High Fiber Diet
Processed and packaged foods – those that make up the majority of the Western diet – are low in fiber. This is because processing removes the most valuable parts of many grains and seeds – the outer husk.
But a high fiber diet has numerous benefits (5).
The greatest benefit – and the one that may be at least indirectly linked to pattern baldness – is its ability to improve (and maintain) metabolic health.
To understand these benefits, it’s first important to understand exactly what fiber is.
Dietary fiber is a carbohydrate that resists both digestion and absorption (6). It also consists of an array of components, including bran, pectin, inulin, and resistant starches.
According to various epidemiological and clinical studies, “the intake of dietary fiber and whole grain is inversely related to obesity … and cardiovascular disease (CVD)” (7).
What do these results have to do with hair loss?
As I’ll discuss in further detail below, there is research available that may link androgenetic alopecia to other metabolic syndromes.
If this link is true, a high fiber diet may help to slow the development of – or even the progression – pattern balding.
A ‘Healthy Gut’ Diet
Speaking of fiber, let’s move onto the gut and how a ‘healthy gut’ diet may contribute to a healthy scalp.
The gut contains billions of bacteria, archaea, viruses, and eukaryotic microbes – both good and bad (8). When considered together, these make up the microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract.
But what exactly is a ‘healthy gut,’ and what is included in a healthy gut diet?
In short, a healthy gut is one that contains enough ‘good’ bacteria (known as probiotics) to keep the ‘bad’ bacteria in check. This helps to protect the gut – and the rest of the organism – from viruses and food-borne illnesses such as salmonella.
A healthy gut diet, then, is one that aims to protect the balance of bacteria so as not to push it too far onto either side – too much ‘good’ bacteria, or too much ‘bad.’
This is achieved by eating probiotic-containing foods (the ‘good’ bacteria) and prebiotics (a food compound that ‘feeds’ the probiotics so as to grow their colony) (9).
Processed foods contain preservatives which, almost by definition, are there to kill bacteria. This is all good and fine when you want to store something for a long time, but when it comes to our gut bacteria it’s not a good thing at all.
Processed foods (full of preservatives and other artificial additives) kill many of these healthy bacteria, upsetting the balance and causing health issues down the road.
Although the connection between healthy gut bacteria and hair loss is not entirely clear, what is clear is that improving the balance of healthy gut bacteria can help to stop hair loss, and may even help to regrow your hair.
Here’s an in-depth guide to healthy gut bacteria for beating hair loss.
Here are a few very simple tips that you can do right now to improve your gut bacteria:
- Avoid processed foods
- Avoid preservatives
- Avoid antibiotics whenever possible
- Drink fermented drinks like wine (in moderation), kombucha, and kefir
- Take a high-quality probiotic and/or prebiotic
- Eat fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt
A guide to the best probiotic supplements for hair loss.
A Low Glycemic Index Diet
It’s now fairly clear that blood sugar levels play an important role in human health. More specifically, high blood sugar levels can cause all sorts of health issues and have been linked to an array of illnesses, including Type II diabetes, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and hypertension (10, 11, 12).
And while you may have already known the above, what you may not know is that spikes in blood sugar levels have also been linked to pattern baldness in both men and women.
According to Gok, Belli, and Dervis, “[m]etabolic syndrome is a group of metabolic disorders associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease” (13). These disorders develop as a result of numerous factors, including but not limited to: genetic predisposition, insulin resistance (IR), obesity, hypertension, , vascular abnormalities, and inflammation.
What does this have to do with hair loss?
In more recent years, male-pattern baldness has been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (14).
That’s not the only link that pattern balding has to metabolic syndrome, though. A study published in 2014 showed a significant link between the later stages of AGA (III or higher) and mean value of fasting serum insulin (15). A 2016 study performed by researchers in Peru show that hair follicle characteristics may be an early marker of Type II diabetes (16).
While this doesn’t definitively link pattern balding to metabolic disorders, the interconnection between AGA and metabolic syndrome does deserve further research.
But even if the two aren’t linked (even though preliminary research says otherwise), it never hurts to lower your intake of high glycemic foods (17). These are foods that can lead to blood sugar spikes as they convert quickly from carbohydrate to glucose in the body, as opposed to lower glycemic foods that take a longer time to convert to glucose.
What Foods Cause Blood Sugar Levels to Spike?
The glycemic index of foods is a way to measure how much a food (when digested) will cause our blood sugar levels to rise.
Therefore, we should aim to eat foods with a low glycemic index and avoid spiking our blood sugar levels as much as possible.
Hair Loss and Glycemic Loads
One theory is that male pattern baldness could be a clinical marker of insulin resistance. This means the researchers believe that baldness can be used as a visible symptom to diagnose insulin resistance (18).
Glycemic index was originally used as a scale that rates how much foods raise blood sugar levels using glucose as a reference point.
However, glycemic load is now used as a fairer estimation of the quality of a carbohydrate because it takes into account the glycemic index and amount of carbohydrate in a typical serving.
Insulin resistance means that cells don’t respond the way they are meant to when insulin is released by the body to combat high blood sugar.
When we eat foods with high glycemic loads, our bodies digest them too fast and sugar floods into the blood too quickly. What normally happens is that insulin is released and this tells cells to take up glucose from the blood.
It is likely that insulin resistance causes hair loss because the blood sugar in our bodies becomes much more unstable, and our hair simply can’t cope with quick and continuous changes in blood sugar.
When we evolved we would never have to cope with such great variations in blood sugar, and our hair is one of the first and also the most visible places that suffer.
It’s possible the quick and on-going changes in the chemistry of our blood (like rising and falling blood sugar) interrupt the growth cycle.
In a similar way to how plants suffer when the pH and amount of nutrients in the soil is changed. Except with humans who eat high GL foods this is occurring all the time throughout the day.
Primitive cultures don’t have access to foods with high GL (except honey occasionally) because their foods are natural and contain plenty of fiber so an Eskimo, for example, would not undergo rapid rises and falls of blood sugar levels throughout the day.
The answer is to consume foods (and drinks) with low glycemic loads. This basically means whole, natural, and ideally raw foods.
Processed foods usually have high GL because all the fiber has been removed so they are absorbed into the blood very rapidly. It might be beneficial to view processed foods in a new way which will help in curtailing them from your diet.
Instead of thinking of highly processed foods as a food source, begin to view highly processed foods as ‘oral stimulation.’
This will help you to shift your diet towards real whole natural food that has nutritional value but you can still be stimulated from time to time with some processed ‘food.’
As an interesting thought, why do you think it’s so easy to eat large amounts of junk food, but it’s hard to eat lots of vegetables? Well, when we eat junk food our bodies can’t find the nutrients they want and need from the food, so we keep on consuming hoping to get enough of what we need.
Fresh, raw vegetables have everything we need in them so we don’t need to eat huge quantities. The main problem is that we all eat for pleasure and not for nutrition.
The table below shows the GL of some typical refined and unrefined foods:
|REFINED FOODS||UNREFINED FOODS|
|Food||Glycemic Load||Food||Glycemic load|
|Crisped rice cereal||77.3||Parsnips||19.5|
|Jelly beans||74.5||Baked potato||18.4|
|Lifesavers||67.9||Boiled broad beans||15.5|
|Rice cakes||66.9||Boiled couscous||15.1|
|Table sugar (sucrose)||64.9||Boiled sweet potato||13.1|
|Shredded wheat cereal||57.0||Boiled brown rice||12.6|
|Grape-nuts cereal||54.3||Boiled yam||11.5|
|Cheerios cereal||54.2||Boiled garbanzo beans||9|
|Rye crsip bread||53.4||Pineapple||8.2|
|Shortbread cookies||41.9||Boiled beets||6.3|
|Granola bar||39.3||Boiled kidney beans||6.2|
|Angel food cake||38.7||Apple||6.0|
|100% bran cereal||32.5||Cherries||3.7|
|Whole wheat bread||31.8||Peach||3.1|
Eating processed foods with high glycemic loads that are devoid of enzymes is one of the primary reasons the occurrence of hair loss is much higher in more developed countries than less developed countries.
Now let’s take a closer look at how diabetes may contribute to hair loss.
Hair Loss Could Be Caused by a Declined Circulatory System
Some of the scientific theories do not link diabetes – be that type 1 or type 2 – directly to hair loss. They do, however, believe it to be a secondary symptom – poor blood circulation (19).
Considering the fact how devastating the disease can be and how negatively it affects various bodily processes, this is really not a surprise. When the whole system is compromised, symptoms can appear literally anywhere within the human body.
Diabetes does the most damage to the body’s circulatory system, which results in a decreased ability to transport nutrients and oxygen (20). The circulatory system was developed to be close to the most important organs like the heart, lungs, brain, etc. Even when it loses some of its efficiency, it can keep the body alive by providing blood for these major organs.
Bad circulation often results in cold limbs – especially cold feet – and hair thinning, simply because of the location of these two areas. While the circulatory system can still deliver enough blood to the main organs helping them keep us alive, the upper and lower extremities can suffer from not getting enough blood and nutrients.
In these cases the decreased blood circulation is a secondary effect of diabetes, but really not the primary reason for the hair loss that occurs. From a hair fall standpoint, the main problem with bad circulation is that it not only makes you lose your hair, but it also makes it harder for your body to grow new ones.
Drug-Induced Hair Loss
Another likely scenario where diabetes can cause hair loss in an indirect way is when you take certain drugs for it. Many diabetes drugs are known for their side effects, some of which include increased shedding.
There is vast scientific evidence that links drugs to lost hair, including alpha-glucosidase inhibitors, biguanides, and dopamine agonists like Bromocriptine (21). Despite the studies, the link is often still hard to establish mainly because of the nature of the disease.
From a diagnostic and side effect identification standpoint, diabetes is tricky because many of the drug-related side effects are also the side effects of diabetes.
When it’s possible that the cause is a drug, trying a different one can help, but sometimes the symptoms won’t go away even if they were caused by the previous medication.
A Hormonal Imbalance Created By Diabetes
Diabetes creates a hormonal imbalance in the body – while also often being caused by a hormonal imbalance – and these changes often manifest through hair loss (22). While most people are familiar with the role of the hormone called insulin, there are at least three additional hormones that play a crucial role in blood sugar regulation (23).
These three additional hormones are: glucagon, cortisol, and Human Growth Hormone (HGH).
Diabetes does a number on the whole process and not just these individual hormones, and that can cause an imbalance that in return will negatively affect various other bodily processes, possibly including hair growth and regeneration.
The result can unfortunately be thinned and steadily degrading hair, which sometimes leads to gradual and permanent balding.
Negatively Affecting Hair’s Growth Phases
For healthy people, five to 15 percent of their hair will be in a resting phase at any given time. This means that the hairs that are in that phase stop growing for a while. The problem is that when someone has diabetes, that number could become significantly higher.
When a high percentage of the hair gets stuck in that resting phase for too long we call this telogen effluvium, which is basically a condition where too many follicles go into resting phase at once (24). This doesn’t necessarily result in permanent balding, but it can lead to excessive shedding (usually temporary).
Reduced Healing Factors
It is well-known that diabetes leads to diminished healing within the body (25). This happens due to a combination of factors like decreased blood flow and a degrading growth factor response.
These two combined diminish the body’s ability to successfully trigger a quick and efficient response to injuries. The reason why this negatively affects hair growth has everything to do with our hair’s own cyclical growing phase which involves natural hair damage (26).
Your body replaces the damaged hairs with new ones, using the same follicle for the growing process. When you have diabetes this process is unfortunately much slower, in fact it is often sluggish enough that instead of being able to replace the hair with another one, it simply falls out.
Oxidative stress is one of the main culprits of diabetes. Oxidative stress implies the individual or simultaneous presence of certain conditions including hyperglycemia, hyperlipedemia, or hypertension (27). Hair thinning is just one of the many symptoms that can arise from these conditions, and the more serious ones can unfortunately lead to severe organ damage.
Compromised Immune System
Another side effect of having diabetes is the presence of a likely compromised immune system (28). When blood sugar levels are much higher than normal, the body’s immune system has to put in extra work which leaves it more vulnerable to outside attacks.
Infectious diseases are more likely to find a crack through the shield, and once they do, they cause even more problems. The dilemma is twofold. First, many of the potential diseases and infections can cause shedding and balding on their own.
Even if they do not, however, they can still affect various bodily processes negatively, likely affecting the growth rate and quality of the hair. As with most problems within the human body, we are talking about a chain reaction.
Diabetes is often not the primary cause of hair loss, rather the first domino that starts the process. On the plus side, shedding that is triggered by some kind of infection – even if that infection is a result of diabetes – tend to correct itself after the cause has disappeared.
There is also a condition called alopecia areata, where our own immune system turns against us, or more precisely our hair (29). The condition doesn’t leave scars, but causes baldness on certain areas of the scalp by telling the immune system to attack the hair follicles by causing inflammation.
Most of the time this only affects a couple of patches here and there, but sometimes it leads to complete scalp baldness and in some extreme cases, complete bodily hair loss including the eyebrows, lashes, and pubic hair.
While the condition is not caused directly by diabetes, people with diabetes are more prone to it, and its effects tend to be more serious when they involve a person with the disease.
Hair loss is a complex issue and, as such, a diet change will not solve the issue entirely. However, it can help to set you in the right direction.
If you have a question, please leave it in the comment section below and I will be sure to answer.