We all know that alcohol isn’t the healthiest for your body, unless we’re talking about the occasional glass of red wine. Too much drinking can lead to hangovers, weight gain, vomiting, liver problems, and a weak immune system (1).
But does it have any effect on hair loss?
In this article, we will go over the effect of alcohol on hair loss, including the scientific evidence that alcohol can contribute to hair loss and what you can do to fix it.
What is Alcohol?
To understand what alcohol can do to the body and the scalp, we should first talk about what alcohol really is.
Alcohol is produced when grains, fruits, or vegetables go through a process called fermentation. Fermentation is when yeast or bacteria in the grains, fruits, or vegetables, react with sugars (2). When we talk about the alcohol we drink, what we’re really talking about is the chemical compound called ethanol. The process of fermentation creates ethanol and carbon dioxide (2).
Because of the way alcohol works in the body, it’s considered a drug. Among drugs, it is classified as a depressant. That means that if you drink enough, it slows your body down. That’s why you might slur your speech, feel uncoordinated, and react more slowly after you drink.
The Role of Alcohol in Society
If alcohol isn’t good for our bodies, why do we drink?
Well, alcohol is important to social interactions in many cultures.
It’s a fixture in most countries except Muslim-predominant ones, where many people abstain from alcohol. The worldwide average of alcohol consumed in 2005 was 6.13 liters (3).
There are many holidays worldwide in which alcohol is important, such as Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, and New Year’s Eve. Alcohol is more than a drug, it’s a tool for people to connect with one another.
Does Alcohol Affect Hair Loss Directly?
Alcohol can be important in our lives. It can keep our social lives healthy. But what can alcohol consumption cost your body? Could it be causing your hair loss?
In a short answer, yes and no.
Research says that alcohol doesn’t directly lead to hair loss. That is, putting ethanol into your body won’t make your hair fall out. But there are other negative effects to alcohol consumption that can cause hair loss, including:
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Lifestyle stress
- Blood sugar spikes
- Liver damage
Let’s go over each of these in more detail.
How Alcohol can Lead to Nutrient Deficiencies
If you’re drinking too much alcohol on a daily basis, it can mean that your diet is less diverse than it should be, and you could be missing out on key nutrients your hair needs.
This section will look at possible nutrient deficiencies that could be caused by drinking alcohol, and how they can affect hair loss.
Vitamin D and Hair Loss
One of the nutrients you can lack when drinking too much alcohol is Vitamin D. Vitamin D has been shown to be important to hair growth because of its role in the immune system (4). It also has anti-inflammatory properties (4).
The importance of Vitamin D for hair growth becomes clear when we look at the disorder Vitamin D-dependent rickets type 2. People with this disorder have a mutation in their vitamin D receptor genes, and so can’t process Vitamin D the way others can (5). This often leads to alopecia totalis, which is a total absence of body hair.
Although this is a rare disorder that doesn’t have to do with alcohol consumption, it shows us the relationship between Vitamin D and hair growth.
It makes sense that if you are lacking in Vitamin D because of your alcohol consumption, you could be suffering from hair loss.
Biotin and Hair Loss
You may have heard of biotin. It’s sold often as a hair and nail strengthening supplement, but how important is it for our hair, really? In this section, we’ll discuss what biotin is and how alcohol can cause biotin deficiency.
Biotin is part of the B-Vitamin family. It’s often marketed in the beauty industry as a supplement to help hair and nail growth, but this isn’t quite the way biotin works. Biotin has been shown to help hair loss, but only biotin deficiency is a contributing factor to alopecia. In other words, biotin can only help you if you aren’t getting enough of it.
How many people are really biotin deficient? Not many, as it turns out. Biotin is found in a lot of common foods:
- Green peas
- Dairy products
- Whole grains
- Carrots, cauliflower, and mushroom (6)
If any of these foods are part of your regular diet, you most likely don’t have a biotin deficiency. If you do have a biotin deficiency, you may present with the following symptoms (21):
- Rash on the skin or face
- Dry, scaly skin
- Itchy eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Prickling sensation on hands and feet
- Muscle pain
- Seizures (6)
- Hair loss
So how do you become biotin deficient?
One way is through genetics. Biotin deficiency is an inherited disorder in which the body can’t recycle biotin.
Scientifically speaking, there are two ways alcohol can cause biotin deficiency:
- By taking place of other nutrients if alcohol is consumed in high amounts, along with very little food.
- By blocking the body’s ability to absorb biotin.
The first point isn’t a common occurrence – unless you suffer from alcoholism, you shouldn’t be consuming enough alcohol to cause nutrient deficiency. But let’s take a close look at the second point and find out how alcohol can prevent the body from absorbing biotin.
How can alcohol cause biotin deficiency?
After biotin is ingested, it is broken down in the stomach into biocytin and biotin-oligopeptides, which are further processed by the enzyme biotinidase (8). Then, the biotin is absorbed in the small intestine and stored in the liver (8).
So which part of this process does alcohol interfere with? Turns out it’s the last one.
There’s a study that has shown alcohol consumption can inhibit intestinal biotin absorption (7). In this study, chronic alcohol feeding was found to lead to decreased SMVT protein expression in rats.
The SMVT protein, or sodium-dependent multivitamin transporter, is important for biotin uptake in the intestines (8).
It’s significant that alcohol reduces this protein’s activity because it suggests that alcohol may actually be inhibiting biotin absorption at the genetic level! Specifically, by interfering with transcription in the SLC5A6 gene.
Beyond the scientific jargon, the takeaway of this discussion on biotin is that alcohol can cause biotin deficiency on multiple levels.
If you’re drinking too much alcohol, you may not be eating enough biotin-rich food, and alcohol itself can cause problems with biotin absorption at the genetic level.
What to do about biotin deficiencies
So what should you if you have a biotin deficiency that’s affecting your alopecia? Well, this is an easy fix: introduce more biotin into your body! This can be through food or supplements. If your hair loss really is caused by a lack of biotin, you should see results.
One study even found that out of ten people with biotin deficiencies, eight had alopecia that improved after treatment with biotin supplements (6).
However, it’s important to remember that there’s limited research on the link between alcohol and biotin deficiency.
The study mentioned above on the inhibition of biotin absorption due to alcohol was performed on rats, not humans. Additionally, it’s unlikely that alcohol is preventing you from getting biotin in your diet unless you’re consuming very large amounts of alcohol on a daily basis, or are suffering from alcoholism.
Digestion and Hair Loss
Alcohol can not only cause nutrient deficiencies, but also digestive issues that may contribute to alopecia.
It’s no surprise that heavy drinking is hard on the gastrointestinal system. Alcohol can cause problems in digestion such as stomach ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn, and inflammation of the stomach lining (9).
There are three main ways in which alcohol causes digestive problems (12):
- Reduces secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
- Damages lining of the stomach and intestines and impairs nutrient absorption
- Inhibits transport and storage of nutrients.
In other words, alcohol can interfere with almost every step of the digestive process.
These digestive problems on their own can be significant health issues. But they may be a factor in your hair loss as well.
This link is apparent when looking at the occurrence of hair loss in people with IBD, or irritable bowel syndrome. Irritable bowel syndrome is characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal system (11). One study found that hair loss is common among people with IBD (10).
It’s true there is a lack of research on whether stomach inflammation specifically caused by alcohol affects hair loss. However, when we look at the high occurrence of alopecia in people with IBD, the connection appears strong. In other words, it seems likely that digestive issues can be factors that cause hair loss.
The fact that alcohol can cause so many digestive issues also explains more why alcohol can contribute to nutrient deficiencies. If you lack nutrients such as Vitamin D and biotin deficiency, this can lead to hair loss.
Diabetes/Glucose and Hair Loss
Now let’s look at the connection between alcohol, diabetes, and alopecia.
Before we talk about the role of alcohol and diabetes in alopecia areata, we should go over what, exactly, diabetes is.
Diabetes is a disorder where the body has trouble processing glucose, or blood sugar (16). As you probably know, there are two types of diabetes.
Type 1 is an autoimmune condition that alcohol has no effect on. Therefore, we’re going to focus on diabetes type 2 in this article.
Diabetes type 2 is characterized by insulin resistance, where the pancreas still makes insulin, but the body doesn’t respond to it the way it should (16). The result is that the body has no way to regulate blood sugar levels.
Can drinking alcohol cause diabetes?
There are a couple of ways in which alcohol can affect diabetes:
- In moderate amounts, raises your blood sugar
- In excess amounts, lowers your blood sugar
- Stimulates appetite
- Causes weight gain and makes it hard to lose weight
- Interferes with diabetes medicine like insulin
- Increases blood pressure (12)
Alcohol isn’t all that bad, in terms of diabetes. Multiple studies have concluded that moderate amounts of alcohol can actually protect you from developing type 2 diabetes.
But the beneficial effect of alcohol on the condition is limited: one study conducted in 2003 found that while moderate drinking reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heavy drinking increased the risk — especially in women (13).
So what’s the reason for the connection?
Well, scientists suspect that chronic heavy consumption of alcohol can impair the body’s glucose tolerance and insulin resistance, which would contribute to diabetes (14).
Can diabetes cause hair loss?
Because insulin is found in hair follicles, it may have an important effect on hair growth cycles (15). However, like the other conditions listed above, there’s a lack of research on the subject. Because of this, it’s hard to say conclusively that diabetes directly causes hair loss.
There is some evidence on the subject, though. Two separate studies found that insulin resistance in both men and women corresponded to higher rates of androgenetic alopecia (15, 17). Another study found a link between early baldness and insulin resistance in men (18).
So how likely is it that drinking alcohol affects diabetes to the point where you lose your hair? The research indicates that it’s certainly possible, but not very likely.
Alcohol and Lifestyle Stress
So what is likely? Well, it turns out that lifestyle stress contributes significantly to hair loss, and heavy alcohol consumption is a huge factor in lifestyle stress (19).
A study conducted from 2009 to 2011 compared the lifestyles of twins, and then looked at how lifestyle stress affected their hair loss.
It found that high alcohol consumption (more than four drinks a week), high BMI, smoking, caffeine consumption, and higher overall levels of stress were all associated with higher hair thinning scores (19).
It may not surprise you to learn this, but it’s apparent that stress can cause hair loss!
Should You Stop Drinking Alcohol?
If you drink heavily and suspect that alcohol is causing your hair thinning and loss, it can only do your body good to stop drinking and see if your condition improves.
Heavy drinking takes a toll on your body in many ways, so we recommend at least reducing your alcohol for your health’s sake. If it helps your hair loss, all the better!
It’s also important to note that alcohol isn’t all bad – it can even be beneficial in small doses. It can reduce your risk for heart disease and diabetes (20).
Ultimately, though, unless you enjoy the the occasional drink so much that it increases the quality of your life, scientists say the risks of alcohol consumption don’t outweigh the small benefits (20).
In the end, there isn’t any conclusive research that says alcohol directly causes alopecia. What we can conclude here is that excessive alcohol consumption has detrimental effects on your body, which means that parts of it won’t work as well as they should, including your hair follicles.
Our advice is to take care of yourself, set up positive lifestyle habits, and consider the most common causes of alopecia first before looking at your alcohol consumption as a factor.