This post will discuss the effects that chronic marijuana use may have on hair loss. It will include a look at the two major ways that cannabis can affect hair health and how its users can mitigate its adverse effects on hair.
Marijuana: A Plant with Two Faces
Cannabis, or marijuana, is a popular recreational and medicinal drug. Various countries are gradually legalizing its recreational use. These include the United States, Canada, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain and many more.
Increasingly, health care professionals are also prescribing it as a medical treatment. Research finds cannabis can provide relief for a variety of ailments. Among them are chronic pain, muscle spams, glaucoma, seizures, as well as psychological conditions (1).
This has led some to tout the drug as a cure-all. Yet there are also clear negative consequences to cannabis consumption. One ill effect not commonly recognized is hair loss.
The Evidence Linking Marijuana and Hair Loss
There is some evidence that chronic smokers are at an increased risk of developing pattern baldness. A population survey out of Taiwan found regular smoking was a predictor of pattern baldness among men (2). The study controlled for potentially confounding variables like age and family history. Yet there was still a statistically significant relationship between smoking and hair loss. Smokers were at increased risk of having moderate or severe pattern hair loss.
Another study out of Jordan found regular smokers were more likely to develop prematurely gray hair before turning 30 (3). An earlier study of out of England had found a similar result for both men and women (4).
Collectively, these studies point to what has been called “smoker’s hair” (3). This includes hair loss, greying and possibly other changes to hair texture.
Researchers performed these studies with regular tobacco users. Yet the results almost certainly carry over to cannabis users for two reasons. Firstly, the harmful effects of combustion are similar. We will discuss those next. Secondly, the large majority of cannabis smokers mix it in with tobacco (5).
Three Ways Regular Marijuana Use Can Be Linked to Hair Loss
We can separate the effects of marijuana on hair health into three categories.
Physiological Effects of Combustion
The majority of cannabis users smoke the plant, either alone or with tobacco. In both cases, the combustion process releases of thousands of harmful substances. The lungs then absorb these and they travel throughout the body.
A 2003 study highlighted various ways in which smoking and combustion can damage the follicles (6). The smoke damages the microvasculature of the dermal papilla cells. These are cells in the hair follicle that are critical in regulating the hair growth cycle. Damage to the dermal papilla cells can adversely affect hair growth.
The toxins in the smoke also damage the DNA in the follicle cells. They also upset the protein-controlled regulatory systems that modulate the hair growth cycle. Finally, toxins in the smoke can also aggravate the inflammation in the hair follicles. This is called follicular inflammation and is a hallmark of male pattern hair loss (7).
Physiological Effects of Cannabinoids
Marijuana contains over 100 chemicals that are called cannabinoids. The two most famous of these are THC and CBD. They take their name because they are similar to a class of chemicals the human body naturally produces: the endocannabinoids. These attach to receptors in various organs, including the hair follicles. The THC in marijuana attaches to these receptors just like endocannabinoids.
A study performed in 2007 by researchers at the University of Debrecen found that cannabinoids inhibit the growth of the human hair follicle (HF) (8).
The researchers found that “the prototypic endocannabinoid, AEA (which may even be produced within human HF), and […] THC, both inhibit human hair shaft elongation and induce apoptosis-driven HF involution (catagen) in vitro.”
This means that cannabinoids can inhibit the proper development and growth of the hair shaft and induce hair loss.
The above graph shows the relationship between a cannabinoid like AEA and the follicle’s growth phase. As the amount of AEA increases, so too does the percentage of hair follicles in the catagen phase. In this phase of the hair cycle the hair stops growing and the follicle prepares to shed the hair.
This can sometimes precipitate a condition known as telogen effluvium. This is an acute form of hair loss that occurs when the hair follicles enter the telogen phase of the cycle prematurely. It can be due to various reasons, like illness, injury, medications and extreme diets. Stress, however, is an underlying thread in many of them.
Another indirect way in which regular cannabis use can affect hair health is through poor nutritional choices. Being intoxicated with cannabis (or “high”) can lead to binge eating and weight gain (10).
Finally, a necessary requirement to stopping or reversing one’s hair loss is sufficient motivation. The best way of dealing with hair loss is through a multi-pronged approach. This will involve changes in diet, lifestyle, shampoo, supplements and pharmaceutical interventions as required. To do all this one must be sufficiently motivated and organized. Scientists confirm that marijuana use can decrease motivation, and they have even given this condition a name: cannabis amotivational syndrome (11).
What You Can Do to Combat Marijuana-Linked Hair Loss
If you are concerned about marijuana’s impact on your hair, here are some steps you can take.
1. Decrease Marijuana Usage
Stopping marijuana altogether may yield the best results. Yet many users are wary of doing so. This is especially true for medical cannabis users. Stopping the drug entirely may cause the medical condition they are treating to flare up again.
The sensible option is to reduce consumption. The optimal level is low enough to keep the symptoms of the condition under control. At the same time, it is low enough to minimize the drug’s adverse effects.
2. Consume Cannabis Differently
Most of the damage done by cannabis is related to the harmful chemicals (including carcinogens) released during combustion.
An alternative to smoking marijuana is using non-combustible methods like vaping or vaporizing. Users vaporize cannabis through special devices that heat the plant, but not to the point of combustion. Cannabinoids like THC or CBD can also be vaped. In theory, even though these are synthetic, they are a less harmful method of consumption.
Edibles are an even less harmful way to consume cannabis. Another option is cannabis oils. These are concentrated forms of the plant which users typically consume in capsules. Edibles and oils completely bypass the problems of combustion and even vaping. Users, however, must be careful of dosage when consuming orally.
3. Increase Nutritional Intake
As mentioned, a side effect of cannabis use is poor nutritional choices. These are typically junk foods like processed carbs and sugary snacks.
The cannabis user can alleviate this issue by consuming abundant micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. These provide the body the necessary nutrition to reduce junk food cravings. The easiest way to increase this nutritional intake is to consume a diet of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Such foods contain vitamins A, B, C, and D, niacin, iron, magnesium, calcium, and countless more.
4. Find the Root Cause of Your Hair Loss
As we saw, marijuana can contribute to hair loss in some individuals. However, it will usually not be the main factor. From genetic predisposition to chronic illness to medication, there are many causes of hair loss. Meaning it is crucial to first identify the type of underlying hair loss.
Slow, chronic hair loss starting at the temples is the hallmark of pattern baldness. Scientists believe the cause is androgens (and DHT in particular) attacking the hair follicle.
On the other hand sudden onset, acute hair loss is usually related to telogen effluvium or alopecia areata. The cause of these, and especially telogen effluvium, is often an environmental trigger. The most common triggers are disease, medication, nutritional deficiency, or acute stress.
Another potential cause of hair loss are hormonal imbalance, especially in women. Alternatively, you could have an underlying medical condition contributing to the issue. A physician can rule these out.
The relationship between marijuana and hair loss is insufficiently studied. However, it is almost certain that giving up marijuana will have no ill effect on your hair. On the contrary, it may very likely benefit it.
The importance of individual differences cannot be overstressed. People have dramatically different emotional and physiological responses to cannabis. The reasons for this are not clear. Yet it is almost certain there are differences in how internal organs – including the hair follicles – respond to cannabis.
Marijuana laws differ from state to state and from country to country. Possession still carries a fine or prison sentence in many locations. Know your local laws.
In summary, if you are determined to increase your chances of stopping or even reversing hair loss, then quitting or at least lowering the consumption of cannabis is one place to start.