When you are losing your hair, you may be desperate to try just about anything to grow it back.
One common path that many hair loss sufferers take is to overhaul their diet. That is certainly not a bad choice. The problem comes when “extreme” diets are undertaken without regard to physical or mental wellbeing.
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern often considered to be an “extreme” diet. As this article will explain, though, intermittent fasting can be done healthily.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern wherein the individual cycles between periods of fasting and periods of eating. It is referred to as an eating pattern as opposed to a diet because it does not dictate what you eat, but instead when you eat.
While it seems that intermittent fasting has only gained popularity in the last few years, it has been used for centuries. It is most commonly associated with various religious practices and holidays (Ramadan, Good Friday, etc). It is also believed that this pattern of eating was practiced by our earliest ancestors during the hunting/gathering days.
There are two schedules that are most commonly used for intermittent fasting: 1) time-restricted feeding, and 2) alternate day fasting.
The first involves abstaining from food for a set number of hours in one 24-hour period.
Example implementations of this schedule include 18/6 (18-hour fasting window followed by a 6-hour eating window), 16/8 (16-hour fasting window followed by a 8-hour eating window), and 14/10 (48-hour fasting window followed by a 10-hour eating window).
The second schedule involves a limited caloric intake on day 1, followed by a day of regular caloric intake. There are some models that take this even further and recommend you consome no calories on day 1, and consume “regular” calories on day 2. The cycle then repeats itself on an alternating basis.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
You may be wondering why people would deprive themselves of food on a regular basis. Well intermittent fasting has been shown to have many health benefits. Here is a look at some of the basics.
The human body is a marvelous system of complicated structures and complex processes. This includes its very own cleaning and regulation mechanism known as autophagy.
Cells do not live forever, however, and there are many components within the cell that can break down over time. This is where autophagy comes in.
Autophagy is the mechanism by which cells remove unnecessary or dysfunctional components from the cell. They do so by degrading and then consuming the matter with the help of lysosomes.
Intermittent fasting is a type of stressor and so activates a hormetic response. Hormetic response is an adaptive response to stress. It upgrades various cellular pathways and consequently improves health. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If our ancestors were starving looking for food, the hormetic response improves our performance. This in turn increases our chances of finding food and indeed survival.
It is thought that fasting may promote cellular autophagy in various structures throughout the body (1). This includes the liver, brain, and muscles. It has also been suggested that autophagy may play a role in the hair growth cycle, though these claims should be taken with a grain of salt until further studied (2).
Hormones play a role in every system throughout the human body. They determine what cells and tissues will be acted upon, and they also determine what that action will be.
It makes sense, then, that hormonal imbalance can have serious consequences. And while it is certainly not a life-threatening effect, hormone imbalance can trigger hair loss.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to have an effect on hormone regulation (3). In particular, periods of fasting have been shown to lower insulin levels, leptin, and ghrelin.
This does not mean that intermittent fasting is the answer to hormone imbalances as a whole. But it may be an additional tool to add to your arsenal (under the close supervision of your doctor) if you do suffer from imbalance.
Intermittent fasting does not guarantee weight loss. If you have a few extra pounds to lose, though, then intermittent fasting can be a helpful tool in your weight loss journey.
Excess weight is known to cause a variety of health issues, including insulin sensitivity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. It can also put you at an increased risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
While there is not a definitive link between obesity and hair loss, there are some factors (such as insulin sensitivity) that may be more likely in those who are overweight or obese. This may have to do with the link between pattern baldness and metabolic syndrome, though research on that matter is ongoing (4).
Can Intermittent Fasting Cause Hair Growth?
The short answer is no, intermittent fasting is not a surefire way to promote hair growth.
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern that can provide an array of benefits as mentioned above. While a direct benefit of intermittent fasting is not hair growth, an increase in your overall health may contribute to scalp and hair health.
Intermittent fasting is thought to enable the body’s cells to repair themselves more efficiently. It can also help to regulate hormone levels which can play a major role in hair growth and balding.
If you suffer from pattern baldness, you should know that intermittent fasting is unlikely to produce significant results. It may contribute to your overall health, though, and that is an important step in the fight against scalp tension and DHT sensitivity.
Intermittent Fasting and Temporary Hair Loss
Whether you are following an intermittent fasting schedule for general health benefits, or as a way to potentially promote hair growth, you may be surprised by one temporary side effect: hair loss.
Intermittent fasting may cause a type of temporary hair loss known as telogen effluvium. This is a condition often triggered by a variety of external and internal factors.
Telogen effluvium is a hair loss condition characterized by an increase in hair shedding, loss of hair volume, and slow hair growth. It occurs when the hair growth cycle is interrupted, and the hair follicles are prematurely pushed into the telogen (resting) phase.
In general, this is nothing to worry about. This is especially true if you are undertaking a new eating pattern or diet plan, or otherwise changing your daily habits.
The key here is that telogen effluvium is temporary. If you experience an increase in shedding and hair loss for longer than eight weeks, it is time to speak with your doctor.
The Potential Drawbacks of Intermittent Fasting
While there do seem to be benefits to intermittent fasting, it is not the right choice for everyone. There are some potential drawbacks to consider before you try it for yourself.
Extreme Caloric Deficit
If you are using intermittent fasting as a tool to help you lose weight, it is important to remain in a caloric deficit. To lose weight, you need to consume less calories than you expend.
You should still be sure you are eating enough based on your sex, age, and body type, and you can do so by maintaining a small deficit of anywhere from 250 calories to 500 calories per day (~0.5 to 1 pound of weight loss per week).
If you are already at a healthy weight, though, it is important to ensure you are consuming enough calories within your eating window.
One side effect of intermittent fasting is a decreased appetite. This means you may need to be more conscious of consuming a healthy caloric intake within your eating period.
IMPORTANT! If you have a history of eating disorders, it is best to speak with your doctor and/or therapist before you implement such an eating schedule. It is crucial that you are mindful of your mental health so as not to slip into old, unhealthy patterns.
Nutrient and Mineral Deficiency
One of the most common causes of nutrient and mineral deficiency is an extreme caloric deficit, which we discussed above. Essentially, if you are not eating enough calories to sustain your weight then it is unlikely you are able to fit in all of your nutrient needs.
You do not need to be at an extreme caloric deficit to suffer from poor nutrient intake, however. Even if you are eating enough calories within your feeding window, it is still possible to make poor dietary choices.
Remember, intermittent fasting is about when you eat. It has nothing to do with what you eat, so it is still up to you to ensure you are eating a varied, rich diet. A diet varied enough to contain the majority of your nutrient, vitamin, and mineral needs should contain:
- Lean meats (e.g. chicken, turkey, pork, etc.)
- White fish (e.g. cod, haddock, pollock, etc.)
- Whole grains (e.g. oats, brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, etc.)
- Leafy greens (e.g. broccoli, kale, spinach, collard greens, etc.)
- Fruits (e.g. apples, oranges, berries, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (e.g. pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, etc.)
If you are worried about nutrient deficiencies, it is important to speak with your doctor. A simple blood draw can alert your physician to any deficiencies which you can then treat with an improved diet or dietary supplements.
Intermittent Fasting Frequently Asked Questions
There is plenty of ‘mystery’ surrounding intermittent fasting. This section will answer some common questions about fasting, as well as its effects on hair growth.
Can I Drink Anything While Fasting?
It is not only allowed but highly encouraged!
Zero-calorie beverages such as water, tea, and coffee can be consumed during a fasting period. These can also help you to complete your fasting window with ease as water fills the stomach and coffee is an appetite suppressant (5).
Depending on how “strict” you are with your fasting, you may allow yourself a splash of milk or cream in your tea or coffee. A general rule of thumb is any beverage less than 50 calories will not break a fast. This is hotly debated in the fasting community, though, so take this advice with a grain of salt.
Will Fasting Slow My Metabolism?
If you are using intermittent fasting as a weight loss tool, you may be worried that fasting will slow your metabolism. This can make it more difficult to lose weight in the long run. The good news, however, is that intermittent fasting does not slow your metabolism (6).
You may have heard of something called “starvation mode” where the body will do everything in its power to hold onto fat during periods of starvation. This has largely been proven false. Not to mention that intermittent fasting is not starvation, anyway, since you are still expected to consume your body’s daily caloric needs just within a shorter period of time.
Can I Take Supplements In a Fasted State?
Vitamin and nutrient supplements can be an important addition to your daily routine. But will fasting impact when and how you can take them?
For the most part, intermittent fasting should not impact your body’s ability to absorb supplements. There is an exception to this rule, of course, and that is fat-soluble vitamins which are best taken with a meal.
So if you typically take your supplements during your new fasting window, then just shift them to another time in your day (preferably at one of your meal times). Then you will not need to worry at all about the potential for malabsorption.
Will I Notice a Change in My Hair if I Stop Intermittent Fasting?
Let us say you practice intermittent fasting for a few months and you decide it is not for you, so you return to your usual pattern of eating. Should you be worried about hair shedding?
As mentioned above, intermittent fasting has been known to cause temporary hair loss/shedding. The temporary hair loss is triggered by a variety of factors, and changing up your eating habits can be one of them.
Does this mean you are bound to experience excessive shedding if you stop intermittent fasting? No. But if you do experience an increase in shedding for the first six to eight weeks following the change, you should not be discouraged.
Intermittent fasting is a way of eating that has been practiced for centuries. If you want to give it a try and see the benefits for yourself, there are plenty of intermittent fasting methods to choose from.
You should keep in mind, though, that intermittent fasting is unlikely to produce significant hair growth results. It is not a bad idea, though, to use it in combination with other FDA-approved hair loss treatments such as minoxidil and finasteride.