The balance between good and bad bacteria affects hair health

Probiotics for Hair Health: What They Are and Why You Need Them

There are dozens of hair loss treatments on the market, and even more “cure-alls” boasted by bloggers across the internet.

One of those “cure-alls” is probiotics.

But are probiotics really all they’re cracked up to be?

Can they stop hair loss, and even reverse it?

And what about their effect on the immune system and other systems within the body that contribute to healthy hair growth?

In this post, we’ll answer all of these questions and more. So, read on!

What Are Probiotics?

Before we get started, it’s important to answer an important question: “what is bacteria?”

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that live in a diverse range of environments. They’re found in soil, water, rocks, and snow, and even in the intestinal tract of humans and animals.

A common misconception is that bacteria is bad for you.

The truth is, there are billions of bacteria within your body (1).

There are those that are “good,” those that are “bad,” and still others that aren’t inherently helpful or harmful.

The good bacteria, often referred to as probiotics, are what we’ll be talking about today.

So, what are probiotics?

As their name suggests, probiotics are “for life (2).” In other words, they’re necessary to the healthy functioning of your body.

These microbes are bacteria that live within the gut and elsewhere throughout the body.

Their main job is to keep the “bad” bacteria in check.

Probiotics also work with prebiotics, a fibrous organism that actually feed probiotics so as to provide them the energy they need to thrive.

The Benefits of Probiotics for Your Health

There is much debate as to whether probiotics actually offer health benefits to consumers.

It’s true that many health bloggers hype the organism up to be a cure-all. And while that’s far from the truth, it doesn’t negate the benefits of probiotics entirely.

In fact, probiotics have been proven beneficial in the treatment of many health conditions (3).

For example, probiotics have been proven to effectively replenish the balance of gut bacteria after gastrointestinal upset (4). This may help to prevent reinfection in the case that the condition was microbial.

And probiotics have even been shown to prevent diarrhea and other symptoms related to the use of antibiotics (5).

Probiotic benefits extend beyond the gut, too.

Scientists and doctors have believed for many years that gut health contributes to overall health and well being.

One example that proves their point? Allergies.

According to a study published by researchers from Karolinska Institutet, “differences in the composition of the gut flora between infants who will and infants who will not develop allergy are demonstrable before the development of any clinical manifestations of atopy (6).”

This suggests that gut health is much more deeply linked to immune system health, and possibly even beyond.

The Gut–Hair Loss Connection

Speaking of the far-reaching benefits of gut health, let’s take a look at the gut–hair loss connection.

As mentioned above, science has proven a strong link between gut health and immune system functioning.

A healthy gut – one with the proper balance of prebiotics and probiotics – is one that will often result in a healthy immune system. An unhealthy gut – one that is overwhelmed by the “bad” bacteria – is one that will often result in a poor immune system.

A poorly functioning immune system can have bodywide implications.

For example, it may exacerbate dormant conditions (such as eczema), or it may even cause new conditions to develop (like reactive airway disease).

But did you know that the hair follicle is also affected by the overall health of the immune system?

The hair follicle is an organ within the skin. It’s connected to the circulatory system by blood vessels, and it needs the same thing as all other organs: oxygen and nutrients.

And also just like other organs in the body, inflammation can lead to long-term damage and even death (7).

So, where does this inflammation come from?

The androgen hormone DHT is believed to be the main cause of inflammation in people with genetic hair loss.

But in the case of those with a weakened immune system, the inflammation may come from the immune system itself.

Let me explain.

When the immune system is healthy, it’s able to properly care out its duties (i.e. attack invaders and protect you from infection).

An unhealthy immune system, though, may be overzealous in its attempts.

Alopecia Areata (AA), for example, is a hair loss condition in which the immune system perceives the hair follicles to be a threat. This leads to widespread inflammation of the follicles which causes patchy baldness (8).

Other inflammatory conditions exist, too, including Cicatricial Alopecia (CA) and Folliculitis Decalvans (9, 10).

You can see, then, why it’s crucial that you maintain a healthy gut biome.

And the best way to do so? With probiotics.

Probiotics and Hair: The Scientific Research

There are a plethora of studies available on the benefits of probiotics in the treatment of many conditions. But what about hair loss?

While there aren’t many studies to choose from, there’s one from 2013 that sheds light on the possibilities (11).

To determine the effect of dietary probiotics on hair, researchers from the United States and Greece split mice into two groups.

To make matters even more interesting, the scientists utilized both male and female mice and then compared the results.

The first group received probiotic yogurt for 20 to 24 weeks, while the second was given a diet of control chow.

After just seven days, the mice in the probiotic group had an obvious shine to their fur.

And the benefits didn’t stop there.

The male and female mice to receive probiotics had a greater dermal thickness than the control mice.

In females, the difference was 457.1±64.86 pixels compared to 314.7±60.06. In males, the difference was less staggering but still noticeable at 357.9 ± 63.87 compared to 249.8±48.75:

A diagram showing the effect of probiotics on skin thickness in mice
A microscopic view of the effect of probiotics on skin thickness in mice.

But what were the results when it came to hair growth cycling?

As the researchers noted, “anagenic follicular shift arises after consumption of probiotic yogurt.” Put more simply, the mice who consumed probiotics saw an increase in hairs in anagen phase.

A bar graph and pie chart showing the effect of probiotics on hair cycle stage in mice
The difference that probiotics make in the hair growth cycles of mice.

So, what do these results mean for humans?

While human studies on probiotics for hair growth would be helpful, the above studies do provide some hope.

The hair cycles of mice and humans don’t differ too significantly. This means the results do offer insight into the possible benefits of probiotic consumption for men and women with hair loss.

The Best Probiotics for Hair Health

The below listed probiotics are not the only types to exist. However, they do provide you with a solid place to start if you’re looking to supplement your diet.

Lactobacillus acidophilus

L. acidophilus is likely one of the better known probiotics on this list.

Bad bacteria can be a cause of hair loss
There are many different types of bacteria within the body. These include probiotoics, as well as those that can lead to illness and infection.

This probiotic is largely responsible for the prevention of bacterial overgrowth within the gut, vagina, and mouth.

How does it do its job?

Lactobacillus acidophilus is part of a group of bacteria known as “Lactic acid bacteria.”

The bacteria within this group utilize lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), to break down carbohydrates.

Why does this matter for bacterial overgrowth?

From a biochemical standpoint, fermentation is defined as the extraction of energy from carbohydrates. Therefore, the less carbohydrates there are, the less likely that fermentation and eventual bacterial growth will occur.

Bifidobacterium animalis

Probiotics receive a lot of credit for their control of bacterial colonies. But what about other microbes, like yeast?

Bifidobacterium animalis is another common probiotic that’s found in the large intestine of most mammals. It’s role is similar to that of other probiotics in that it aids in digestion.

This particular strain of probiotic plays another role, though, and that’s the prevention of yeast infections (12).

Yeast is a microscopic fungus that’s used in baking, alcohol fermentation, and even as a nutritional supplement. But not all yeast is good.

In fact, yeast infections like those that contribute to dandruff can be a cause of hair loss (13).

Does this mean that supplementing with B. animalis will cure your dandruff and even get that pesky yeast infection under control? Not necessarily.

But it may still play a beneficial role in the gut.

Escherichia coli

Escherichia coli, more commonly known by its shortened name of E. coli is a bacteria that’s often linked to food poisoning.

It’s important to remember, though, that bacterial strains within one type can be diverse.

There are some strains of E. coli which can lead to food poisoning. But there are other strains that are harmless and even helpful.

As other probiotics do, E. coli helps with digestion. But perhaps its biggest benefit to sufferers of hair loss is that is presence leads to the production of biotin and vitamin K.

Biotin is a vitamin with a very important role in the human body: to convert food to energy (14). This is critical for many metabolic processes, including hair growth.

An increase in E. coli supplementation would, theoretically, increase the amount of biotin within your body.

You can certainly get biotin from food sources and supplements, but vitamins from a bacterial source within the gut are much easier for the body to use (15).

Bacillus subtilis

Bacillus subtilis, sometimes referred to as hay bacillus, is a gram-positive bacteria that’s found in the human gastrointestinal tract as well as the soil.

Just like the other probiotics on this list, B. subtilis plays a critical role in digestion.

More specifically, this bacteria aids in gut motility.

But another important role that this bacteria plays, and perhaps one that’s more important to hair growth, is as an aid in metabolic functioning (16).

Metabolism is the act of turning the food you eat into usable energy for your body. Energy is necessary for all cellular functions, including hair growth.

This probiotic has been shown to “increase[] the apparent metabolism of crude protein, crude fat, dry matter, and organic matter (17).” These results suggest greater metabolic efficiency and nutrient absorption.

Where to Get Probiotics

Yogurt, kefir, saurkraut, and tempeh are some of the best sources of natural probiotics.

You may be wondering:

“Are probiotic supplements just as good?”

According to Gail Cresci, PhD, RD, the answer is no (18).

While probiotic supplements can certainly bridge the gap, there is one thing they’re missing: short-chain fatty acids.

Fatty acids are released as a by-product of naturally-consumed probiotics.

According to Dr. Cresci, these fatty acids can lend their own anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

So, which foods are the best sources of probiotics?

Food Sources

Probiotics are found in abundance in many fermented foods (19). These include:

  • Yogurt
  • Buttermilk
  • Kefir
  • Tempeh
  • Certain cheeses (such as asiago and brie)
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso

And the list goes on.

Yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles
Fermented foods (like yogurt and sauerkraut) and pickled foods (like pickles) are the best source of probiotics.

By adding a few servings of probiotic foods to your diet every week, you can get the necessary amount of live organisms to benefit your gut.

Why Prebiotics Matter

I’ve briefly mentioned prebiotics above. Now, let’s discuss why prebiotics matter just as much as probiotics.

Probiotics are living microorganisms and, as such, they need certain things to survive.

One thing that they absolutely need is food.

Prebiotics are the food that probiotics can easily and most effectively consume. And this helps to strengthen the probiotics within your system so they can do their best.

So, how can you add prebiotics to your diet?

This fiber can be found naturally in wheat, oats, soy, garlic, onions, and asparagus (20).

If you’re taking a probiotic supplement, you can likely also take a prebiotic supplement to complement it.

Probiotic Topical Treatments: Are They Worth It?

With an increasing interest in probiotics for skin and hair health, there has been a plethora of probiotic topical treatments released on the market.

Hair masks, shampoos, and conditioners are just a few kinds.

But, are they worth it? Do they actually work?

Unfortunately, there isn’t any research to review. So let’s consider what we do know.

We know that poor gut health can contribute to poor immune functioning and chronic inflammation. We also know that these can trigger hair loss if left untreated.

What does this tell us? Well the fact is that probiotics are more helpful when consumed than when applied.

This doesn’t mean that topical probiotics can’t have their own benefits.

Topical probiotic treatments likely have other ingredients which are beneficial for hair growth.

For example, antioxidants are found in many cosmetic products. Antioxidants have been proven to fight signs of aging, and perhaps even promote hair growth (21, 22).

So, what’s my recommendation?

Consumption of probiotic foods if your best bet if you’re looking for the most effective way to use them for hair growth.

Conclusion

Health professionals and laypeople alike recommend probiotics as a way to “supercharge” your health.

They have many benefits, especially as they relate to digestion and the immune system.

But are they really the best option for hair growth?

While you wouldn’t want to rely on probiotics alone to treat your hair loss, they can be a great addition to an otherwise healthy lifestyle.

And while they may not regrow your hair directly, they can contribute to overall follicle health.

Do you have questions about probiotics for hair health? Be sure to leave a comment down below.