In this article, you’ll find out the truth about alcohol and its relation to hair loss (in men and in women).
First off, alcohol does not cause hair loss in everyone. Seeing an alcoholic with a full head of hair only shows that everyone is different. Everybody reacts differently to alcohol consumption, and there are many factors in pattern hair loss (including genetics).
But as convincing as your friends may be in getting you to drink, it turns out that regular/excessive alcohol consumption could very well be causing you hair loss.
Here are some of the reasons that alcohol can lead to hair loss.
Alcohol Consumption Can Lead to Blood Sugar Spikes
Blood sugar – also known as glucose – plays an important role in the body. In fact, it’s a major source of energy, and its even used to perform basic brain functions (3, 4). But too much glucose in the blood stream – otherwise known as blood sugar spikes – can have some negative health effects when experienced on a regular basis.
A blood sugar spike occurs when too much glucose builds up in the blood stream. This is a common occurrence in people with insulin resistance or hypo/hyperglycemia, as insulin is the hormone that controls glucose levels and individuals which such disorders do not produce enough of it (or, any at all in severe cases).
Many types of alcohol have considerable amounts of sugar in them. Things like alco-pops, cocktails, and mixers all have huge amounts of sucrose and fructose.
On an occasional basis, this may not cause any problems. But there is now evidence that insulin resistance is linked to pattern baldness (5).
Does this mean those with insulin resistance will develop AGA, and vice versa?
No, not necessarily. But the link does indicate there’s a larger connection between insulin resistance and AGA than was previously thought.
A few reasons may be that insulin resistance plays a role in follicle miniaturization, which is a major contributor of hair thinning and loss (6). It’s also been found that Insulin-like Growth-Factor 1 (IGF-1), which is most abundant in those with insulin resistance, is shown to induce androgen production (7). In other words, it produces more DHT which is believed to be the main trigger for AGA sufferers.
Whatever the cause, it’s clear that alcohol and blood sugar spikes are something to be aware of.
Alcohol Consumption Often Means Choosing Foods That Are Unhealthy
Have you ever awoken after a night of heavy drinking, only to crave the greasiest food possible? While this may seem like an anecdote, it’s actually been proven that alcohol consumption can have a direct impact on dietary intake.
So, what’s the research have to say?
Perhaps the most well known study on the topic – known as the FinDrink study – aimed to investigate differences in dietary patterns in relation to the level of alcohol consumption among Finnish adults (8).
This large-scale study consisted of data collected over four years (1998 – 2001), and a total of 1,720 subjects (816 men and 904 women) participated. The two major points of data – levels of alcohol consumption, and dietary intake – were collected as follows:
- The participants were asked to report both quantity and frequency using the Nordic Alcohol Consumption Inventory; and
- The participants were instructed to catalog their dietary intake using a 4-day diary method.
The amount of weekly alcohol consumption was then categorized into three groups:
- Non-drinkers (less than 12 grams per week);
- Moderate drinkers (between 12–167.9 grams for men, 12–83.9 grams for women per week); and
- Heavy drinkers (more than 168 grams for men, 84 grams for women per week).
So, what did this study reveal?
Male heavy drinkers had a less favorable nutritional intake than their moderate and non-drinking counterparts. This included lower fiber, calcium, iron, and retinol intake. In addition, moderate/heavy drinkers tended to get their energy from total fats and monosaturated fats as opposed to carbohydrates.
Such a diet – low in vital nutrients and high in fats – can increase the risk of developing chronic conditions and contribute to an earlier death (9).
These can also contribute to poor health and system inflammation, which is just another contributor of hair loss.
Alcohol Leads To Dehydration That Can Cause Dry, Brittle Hair
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases the production of urine and dehydrates the body as a result (10). This is why hangovers can be particularly painful the morning after a night of heavy drinking – your body is experiencing a lack of nutrients and a lack of proper hydration.
As you might imagine, dehydration has some not-so-pleasant effects on the body. After all, water makes up anywhere from 55% (in elderly) to 75% (in infants) of human body weight, and it’s used in various bodily systems (11). This is why dehydration can lead to decreases in physical and mental performance, and it can even lead to the improper functioning of various systems (such as gastrointestinal and urinary) (11).
But what about hair health?
Yes, water plays even a crucial role in the health of your follicles (and, as a result, development and hair growth).
Improper hydration of the skin can cause a loss in strength and elasticity, which can lead to long-term damage of the follicles and hair shaft (12). In some cases, it may even promote the development of dry skin which can lead to itching and even more opportunity for damage to the scalp (13).
In short, alcohol is a promoter of dehydration which then leads to the improper functioning of crucial organs (including the skin).
Alcohol Can Damage Your Liver Causing Toxins To Build Up In Your Blood
It’s quite obvious that long-term heavy drinkers are susceptible to liver damage (14). After all, the liver is responsible for removing bodily toxins and purifying the blood. But did you know that even short-term drinking can put a strain on the liver?
This is because the liver is unable to process out alcohol completely. Instead, a number of damaging by-products are produced during metabolism of alcohol in the liver, and this can mean long-term health implications even for short-term alcohol consumption (15).
Dehydration, which is linked to the consumption of alcohol, can make your liver have to work even harder. This is because with less water present, the toxins will be present in higher concentrations.
Perhaps most importantly to hair loss sufferers, alcohol can induce inflammation in the body. Inflammation of the hair follicle can lead to miniaturization, which is a process that further promotes hair thinning and loss.
The liver also produces bile which helps with the process of digesting foods. So damaging your liver with excessive alcohol can cause poor digestion and reduced nutrient intake. With less nutrients in your body, your hair has a hard time growing.
Alcoholic Beverages Contain Preservatives And Other Unnatural Additives
Preservatives are found everywhere – in the foods we eat, in the body products we use, and in the medications we take. It makes sense, then, that alcohol would also contain preservatives.
But what’s so harmful about preservatives?
Preservatives kill bacteria, and make foods and beverages last longer on the shelf. This is great for the manufacturers and business owners, but not so much for the body.
Essentially, preservatives are there for the good of the food. They in no way offer you any benefit, and they can even cause harm.
For example, let’s consider the fact that preservatives kill off bacteria.
On the shelves, this is good. But in the bodies, this can lead to the killing of ‘good’ bacteria (16). Not having the right bacteria in your gut can go on to cause a host of other health issues that eventually may lead to hair loss (17).
On the other side of the coin, some specific alcoholic beverages can help the healthy bacteria in your gut. For example, small amounts of wine (half a glass during a meal) can improve digestion and encourage the growth of healthy bacteria. This has to do with the probiotics found in most wines as a direct result of the fermentation process (18).
Wine also contains resveratrol which is good for your health (19).
A bit of good news?
This means cutting out all alcohol isn’t necessary. However, balance is key.
You May Develop a Nutritional Deficiency
Proper nutritional intake is important to overall health. It can reduce the risk of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, and it can provide you with the energy you need to perform your day-to-day tasks (20). Unfortunately, nutritional deficiencies are common even in adults who believe they’re getting the proper amounts in their daily diet (21).
This may be due to poor nutritional intake, which is common in chronic alcohol drinkers, or poor absorption due to alcohol-related maladies. Whatever the cause, low nutritional levels can lead to hair loss.
For example, zinc plays a role in the process of keratinization (the formation of the protein keratin which forms the hair follicle) (25). Inadequate levels of zinc, then, can contribute to poor keratinization and induce telogen effluvium. In long-term cases of zinc deficiency, follicle hypoplasia (the underdevelopment of the follicle) may occur (26).
What’s the bottom line?
Hair growth is stunted in individuals with nutrient deficiencies, and alcohol can be a major contributor. You can take hair loss supplements to reduce the problem, but it’s better to get these minerals from healthy, unprocessed foods rather than supplements.
Folic Acid Used For Hair Growth Is Reduced
Folic acid is a synthetic vitamin that is used by the body to treat folate deficiency. It is used by the body to aid in the production of red blood cells, and it also assists in the production of DNA and RNA (the body’s genetic materials) (27).
Folate deficiency has been found to be highly prevalent in men with AGA or telogen effluvium, though the exact reason is unknown (28). However, it’s known that alcohol can interfere with folic acid absorption, and it even increases the excretion of folic acid through the urine (29).
But what role exactly does folic acid play in hair growth?
Blood supply is critical to the health of the hair follicle and, as a result, the production of healthy hair. A lack of folic acid, then, can lead to lower levels of oxygen and nutrients being delivered, which can damage the hair irreversibly.
Worse Sleep And Increased Stress
Although sometimes it may seem like a ‘night cap’ helps you to fall asleep, studies have shown that alcohol consumption leads to a poor quality of sleep (30). This can cause you to be overtired and irritable.
But beyond feeling tired, poor quality of sleep can leave you feeling stressed out.
So, what does this have to do with hair loss?
Stress has quite a strong connection to hair loss, and there may be multiple reasons for this (31). First, stress can enhance neurogenic inflammation (32). This isn’t good for men and women with AGA, as they likely already suffer from miniaturization of the follicle due to inflammation.
It can also induce cytokine imbalance, which can lead to further inflammation if not handled (33).
Finally, high levels of stress may be linked to poor intake of oxygen. This can reduce the oxygen that’s available for the follicles, and reduce the quality and health of your hair.
All of this to say, quality sleep and low levels of stress are crucial to a healthy body and hair.
Increases In Estrogen Levels Have Been Linked With Pattern Baldness
Estrogen is the female equivalent of testosterone. It’s a steroid hormone that helps in the development and regulation of female secondary sex characteristics.
But did you know that alcohol consumption has been linked to increased levels of estrogen (34)? That’s right – alcohol increases the levels of this female hormone within your body, which may contribute to hair loss as well as other problems such as cancer.
In 2012, researchers from China discovered that estrogen promotes hair cycle retardation in mice (35). Essentially, higher levels of estrogen in the male body can cause the follicles to prematurely enter catagen phase and even result in telogen effluvium.
This makes sense, as even women tend to experience hair loss when higher-than-normal levels of estrogen are present (such as during pregnancy).
What To Do If You’re Worried That Drinking Alcohol Could Be Causing Your Hair Loss?
There is a lot you can do to prevent any further hair loss, or even regrow lost hair, but it will mean changing some of your habits.
Stop (or Decrease) Alcohol Intake
The most obvious way to combat alcohol-induced hair loss? To stop drinking altogether.
It’s recommended that those who binge drink, or those with alcoholism, stop drinking entirely. This is because even a small bit of alcohol can trigger a binge.
For those without a drinking problem, though, you may be fine to just decrease your alcohol intake.
There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine a few nights per week, or a beer or two over the weekend with buddies. But if you believe that alcohol has contributed to your hair loss, then the less alcohol the better.
Increase Nutritional Intake
Even once you’ve stopped drinking, it’s important to focus on getting your nutrient and mineral stores up to baseline.
The best place to start is with a blood test. A simple blood panel can determine which nutrients may be particularly lacking. It may even unearth some deficiencies you’d never even have thought to treat.
Once you have a better understanding of what nutrients you’ll need to increase, you can do so in two ways:
- With a nutrient supplement
- With a diet change
The use of a dietary supplement can be beneficial when it comes to significant deficiencies. They can also be used to keep your levels balanced once you’ve achieved your desired nutrient intake goal. But they aren’t the best way to get nutrients in the long term. Why?
Nature has an efficient way of combining the vitamins and nutrients we need in our foods to ensure proper absorption. The same cannot be said for standalone vitamin supplements. This is because some nutrients are necessary for the absorption of other nutrients.
Vitamin D, for example, is a common nutrient deficiency. And while you can always take an over-the-counter Vitamin D supplement, it may not absorb as efficiently on its own. That’s because Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin. This means it needs fat to fully absorb. One way around this is to take Vitamin D alongside an Omega 3 supplement.
You may consider other pairings, too, like:
- Iron and Vitamin C
- Folate and Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D and Calcium
- Zinc and Copper
- Sodium and Potassium
If you want to make long-term changes to your nutrient and vitamin levels, then, you should focus on a diet overhaul.
There are dozens of diets out there which claim to be the best one for your health. But many of them can be quite restrictive, and others may be entirely lacking in certain essential food groups.
This is why I’d recommend you stay away from diet trends and, instead, focus on eating a balanced, whole foods diet. Such a diet will include:
- Lean protein (e.g. chicken breast, turkey breast, white fish, tofu)
- Leafy greens (e.g. spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, bok choy, broccoli)
- Healthy fats (e.g. nuts, seeds, olive oil)
- Fruits (e.g. bananas, apples, berries)
- Whole grains (e.g. quinoa, oats, barley, brown rice)
The great thing about such a diet is that you’re likely to hit most, if not all, of your daily recommended nutrient goals.
Improve Blood Circulation to the Scalp
There’s no doubt that alcohol consumption can increase stress levels. It’s also been shown to induce cytokine imbalance. When combined, this is a recipe for inflamed hair follicles and even hair loss.
When the hair follicles are inflamed, they cannot receive the usual flow of blood. And since blood is the mechanism by which oxygen and nutrients are delivered, this means poor hair growth. If left untreated, the lack of blood can lead to hair follicle death.
The good news? Blood circulation can (most times) be restored. Here’s how.
An easy way to reduce muscle tension and trigger an increase of blood flow to the scalp is with massage.
Scalp massage is a set of exercises that you can perform with your hands or with a scalp massaging device. The benefits of scalp massage are numerous, but a few examples include:
- Relieve acute and chronic scalp tension;
- Increase blood circulation to the immediate area;
- Reduce inflammation at the hair follicle;
- Break down calcium buildup which can occur as a result of scalp calcification.
For best results, you should perform scalp massages on a daily basis for at least 10 minutes.
Not sure how to begin? Check out these in-depth scalp massage and exercise demonstrations.
If you want to take your efforts a step further, then try microneedling.
Microneedling is a procedure that involves the use of small needles to induce superficial wounding. As the wounds heal, they draw more blood to the area. The wound healing process can even trigger hair follicle neogenesis!
The great thing about microneedling is it can be done at home. You just need a microneedling tool, such as a dermaroller or dermastamp to get started.
Simply roll the device over the area you’d like to target hair regrowth. You’ll roll it horizontally first, then vertically, and then diagonally. This will ensure you have covered the area entirely.
You can learn more about dermarolling, and the scientific proof of its benefits, here.
Does alcohol consumption directly cause hair loss? No.
However, there are many ‘side effects’ of drinking alcohol which can create the perfect storm for thinning and hair fall. These include an improper hormone balance, poor nutritional intake, and even liver damage.
But if you suspect hair loss, and especially if you’re genetically predisposed to pattern balding, I recommend you stop drinking completely. You can then focus on making positive changes to your lifestyle which can contribute to regrowth.
*This article was reviewed by Dr. Debra Rose Wilson.