We are what we eat, and this also applies to our hair. Just like a poor diet can cause problems with various organs through the body, it can do the same to our hair follicles.
While hair loss has a significant genetic component, this is true for most health conditions. For example, heart disease is one of the most easily preventable conditions. At the same time, it also tends to run in families. Nobody would use this as an excuse to not look after their heart in the form of proper diet and exercise.
With that out of the way, let’s look at some of the most common, widely available foods that could be compromising your precious follicles.
Our body has a preferred pH of 7.4. When we are at this level, everything in our body works as it is supposed to. It is when our pH drops below 7 and becomes acidic that problems begin.
One thing that can dysregulate pH dysregulation more than anything else is our diet. Unfortunately, the modern Standard American Diet (SAD) is highly acidic. And carbonated drinks are among the most acid-forming food or beverage of them all.
High acidity levels within the body can disrupt our hormonal balance, as well as the balance of nutrients and minerals.
On the other hand, alkalizing foods like vegetables, fresh fruits, raw soaked nuts and seeds, have the opposite effect on our pH (they raise it). They contribute to our body’s proper functioning and should be one’s food of choice.
The benefits of an alkaline diet also extend to hair. Let’s see how.
DHT & pH Balance
Scientists believe that the male hormone implicated in male pattern baldness is dihydrotestosterone (DHT) (1). Our bodies make DHT from testosterone through an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase. There are two versions of 5-alpha-reductase: type I and type II. Researchers believe the type II enzyme is linked to hair loss.
There is some evidence that the optimal environment for the type II enzyme is an acidic one (2). This could mean that an alkaline environment could inhibit the action of this enzyme. With less DHT present in the body, there can be less potential for follicle miniaturization and balding.
What to Drink Instead
Instead of fizzy drinks, stay hydrated with these:
- Filtered, distilled, or ionized water (avoid tap water)
- Drink vegetable juices
- Almond milk is incredibly healthy (make it yourself) and almond oil has been proven to stimulate hair growth in mice.
- Herbal and spice mixtures (anise, clove, ginger, cinnamon, lemon grass, etc)
Sugary Cereals: Dessert for Breakfast?
It is commonly said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Whether this is true or not is up for debate.
What is almost certain, however, is that eating highly processed, sugar-rich cereals is bad for our health. This includes our hair follicles.
These mass-produced, highly processed foods have very high glycemic indices that inevitably cause blood sugar spikes. Let’s see exactly what this means and why it is so important.
Why Glycemic Index is Important
The glycemic index of foods measures how much a food will cause blood sugar levels to rise after being digested. Foods rich in highly processed carbohydrates have high glycemic indices, as do carb-rich junk foods. On the other hand, natural, plant-based and whole or unprocessed foods have low glycemic indices.
Processed cereals have a very high glycemic load because the natural fiber from the plant has been removed. Normally, the fiber would cause it to be digested and absorbed into our bodies more slowly.
With the removal of this natural fiber, the food sugars go straight into the bloodstream. This causes a huge spike in blood sugar levels.
In response, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. This hormone attaches to cells in our body, instructing them to absorb the sugar from the bloodstream and use it up as energy. Insulin also helps store sugar into the liver for future use, to be released when blood sugar levels drop too low.
In summary, insulin is essential to keep the levels of blood sugar under control.
When we live on a chronic diet of high glycemic load foods, our body often cannot cope with all this flood of sugar.
Our cells then develop resistance to the effects of insulin, and our blood sugar levels stay permanently elevated. Doctors call this insulin resistance (3).
Insulin resistance and chronically high levels of blood sugar can cause all sorts of health issues. These include Type II diabetes, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and hypertension (4, 5). This condition is also related to an increased risk of heart disease (6).
There is also evidence linking insulin resistance to hair loss.
Hair Loss and Glycemic Loads
Chronically elevated blood sugar also damages the blood vessels. This is important to our hair because hair follicles are small-scale organs in their own right. This makes them fully dependent on an adequate supply of blood to receive all the necessary nutrients. Without this, problems can develop, including hair loss.
Also, insulin is found in hair follicles. It is possible that it plays a role in the regulation of androgen metabolism, including DHT.
Tellingly, scientists have now established a strong link between male pattern baldness and the risk of heart disease (7, 8). This data suggests that men with baldness might be damaging their hearts through poor lifestyle choices, of which the most important ones are dietary.
The data also shows that on average, men with pattern baldness tend to weigh more, have larger waists, higher BMIs, and have higher fasting blood sugar levels. All this suggests a possible link between pattern baldness and insulin resistance (9).
Alongside smoking, alcohol consumption is one of the most significant causes of disease in the western world. Among other ailments, excessive alcohol consumption contributes to (10):
- heart disease
- liver disease
- psychiatric disorders
It also does no favors to the health of our hair. It is a source of dead calories, devoid of the micronutrients our body – and hair follicles – needs to thrive.
High alcohol consumption is also linked to metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance we discussed above (11). Unsurprisingly, research finds it can also contribute to the early onset of androgenetic alopecia (12).
If you are unwilling or unable to eliminate alcohol from your diet completely, you can try reducing your intake. The damaging effects of alcohol on your body and hair are dose-dependent. This means that even a moderate reduction in intake can benefit you significantly.
Dairy can be a big problem for some people since it is one of the most common food allergies. Furthermore, in some people, it can trigger delayed allergic reactions (we discuss these below).
In addition, commercially available dairy is almost always pasteurized. The pasteurization process inactivates the naturally occurring enzymes in the milk. It is these enzymes that allow us to digest the milk in the first place. Without them, our bodies struggle to digest the dairy, making it bio-unavailable and nutritionally useless.
Instead, harmful bacteria digest it, emitting waste products that go into our bodies.
Additionally, many dairy products are contaminated with hormones and antibiotics. This is because milk cows are injected with these, and small amounts will eventually seep from the cow’s system into the milk.
A Word on Delayed Allergic Reactions
What if you’re avoiding all of the foods mentioned above, but are still suffering from hair loss?
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that diet is only one part of the equation. We will discuss other factors below.
Second, you may not actually be avoiding all foods which could be contributing to your hair loss. The most important rule is to avoid foods that could be triggering chronic or delayed allergic reactions (13).
When you think of an allergic reaction, you likely think of hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the tongue, lips or throat. This is known as an anaphylactic reaction.
There are other types of allergic reactions, though. Another important type is a so-called delayed allergic reaction.
As the name suggests, a delayed allergic reaction doesn’t happen suddenly. Instead, it takes place over the course of one to three days. The symptoms will be milder and, due to their delayed nature, more difficult to pin down to one food.
If your body is constantly being exposed to allergy-causing foods it will never get a chance to heal. This can lead to chronic inflammation.
The Link with Hair Loss
What does that have to do with hair loss?
The primary reason delayed allergic reactions can cause hair loss is an increased immune response. This may cause our own bodies to attack the hair follicle as well as cause inflammation in the scalp. These two combined often lead to hair loss.
The good news? If you find out which foods are triggering immune reactions, you can avoid them and treat the issue at its source. The best way to do this is under the guidance of an allergist.
An allergist will likely perform a few tests, including blood tests. These will help determine which foods you might be sensitive to. You and the allergist can also develop a plan to “test out” possible food allergies.
The safest and most common technique is known as the elimination diet.
While on the diet, you’ll eliminate all foods which you and your doctor suspect are triggering allergic reactions. A few common ones include dairy, gluten, corn, soy, pork, beef, and tree nuts.
For six weeks or so you will eat a rather bland diet. You will then gradually introduce the potential allergens back into your diet, one by one. Your allergist will guide you in this. The goal is to “reset” your body and your immune system. This way, when you introduce the potential triggers back into your diet, the allergens will stand out clearly.
Once you have a list of your allergens, make sure to avoid them completely. This will prevent further reactions and chronic inflammation.
Other Lifestyle Factors
While nutrition is key, there are other lifestyle factors that can influence hair loss. Two of the most important ones are stress and over styling/over shampooing your hair.
It is rare for stress to directly cause hair loss. On the other hand, chronic or acute stress can certainly exacerbate any hair loss problems you may be facing.
In some people, stress can trigger a massive transition of hair follicles to the telogen phase of the growth cycle. In telogen, the follicle rests and sheds its hair. If a large number of follicles enter telogen at the same time, the result can be noticeable shedding. This condition is called telogen effluvium, and it can co-exist alongside androgenetic alopecia (14).
One of the easiest ways to fight stress is with meditation. Two of the most popular meditation methods are mindfulness and concentration. Scientific research suggests both can have clear benefits in reducing psychological stress (15).
Another solution for fighting stress and relaxing the scalp muscles at the same time is scalp massage. Not only does scalp massage lower the levels of stress hormones, but it also has a direct beneficial effect on the health of the follicles.
A recent study out of Japan found that four minutes of daily scalp massage is enough to increase the thickness of the hair shaft. This difference was visible after 6 months (16).
Check out the video below to learn more about scalp massage.
When it comes to treating and preventing hair loss, less is often better. After all, our ancestors’ scalps evolved over several million years in a low-tech environment, where the only hair care product was water.
Our scalp and hair simply did not evolve to take the kind of abuse we subject them to today. This abuse takes the form of things like hair gel, mousse, hair paste, styling cream, wax, pomade, hair putty, and many more.
An online search for “best hair products for men” will return thousands of reviews and comparisons. These products often sound cool, cost a lot, and will ultimately do nothing but damage your hair.
What these products all have in common is that with repeated use they cause so-called weathering of the hair shaft (17). This is how scientists refer to the unnecessary damage to our hair shafts caused by lifestyle factors. The most damaging of these are excess hair products, hair dyes, and intense heat (blow-dryers, heat irons, etc).
If you apply these products every day, you might end up shampooing twice a day or more.
Over-shampooing is one of the most easily avoidable mistakes you can make. It almost guarantees that your natural sebum production will be dysregulated.
As a result, your head and hair will feel greasy again only a few hours later. Even if you don’t use any hair product.
Unnecessary hair products on one hand, in combination with excessive shampooing on the other, can wreak havoc on your scalp’s health.
Many people make things worse by shampooing with piping hot water. This can upset the scalp’s natural sebum balance even more than the shampoo itself.
Bonus: Foods That Support Healthy Hair
After cutting out the bad foods, the next step is replacing them! Let’s have a look at some of the best food options for supporting healthy hair.
When it comes to hair, iron is perhaps the most fundamental dietary deficiency. Scientists have known for close to a century that iron deficiency is a key factor in diffuse hair loss. This is especially true in women.
Around two-thirds of women with diffuse hair loss are iron deficient, as evidenced by low serum ferritin (18).
While very common, iron deficiency is also one of the easiest nutrient deficiencies to correct. Some of the most iron-rich foods are animal products. These include:
- red meat
- seafood like clams, mussels, oysters, and fish.
If you can afford it, buy organic or wild meat and seafood.
And remember: while you want to be consuming moderate portions of these animal products, we would not recommend overdoing it.
Fresh Vegetable Juices & Smoothies
Micronutrients are the trace minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals that our body needs to carry out its various functions.
These micronutrients are contrasted to the macronutrients that are the large, bulky molecules your body needs in mass, like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
The general rule of thumb is this: the richer the color, the richer in micronutrients the food. You can find some of the best recipes for hair-growth smoothies here.
Recent research has uncovered the potential for probiotics like lactobacillus reuteri to provide dramatic hair and skin benefits to laboratory animals (19).
Scientists do not yet know for sure how these results will translate to humans. Regardless, probiotics are one of the most beneficial food sources to include in anyone’s diet (20).
You can get probiotics from yogurt, but due to the issues with dairy products we discussed above, consider getting your probiotics from other sources. Some of the most potent ones are sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir. You can also take probiotics, including lactobacillus reuteri, directly in the form of supplements.
Other Vitamins & Minerals to Lookout For
Aside from the specific foods above, prioritize a diet rich in the following:
- omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamins D, E, A, K2, B5, B12
Hair loss is a very complex condition. It’s what a scientist would describe as “multifactorial” (21). Most likely, food is not the single most important component in the hair loss equation, at least in most cases. Having said that, its contribution at this point is almost beyond dispute.
A large number of studies now androgenetic alopecia to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (22). While the correlations are small, they are significant. They suggest that overhauling a bad diet can make a difference in the health of the scalp and hair, at least for some men.
If you have a question, please leave it in the comment section below and I will be sure to answer.