There are a number of ways in which your diet can affect your hair health.
Inflammation, blood toxicity and acidosis, hormonal imbalance, nutrient deficiencies, allergies and poor microbiome health are all determined mainly by your diet and there is strong evidence they also affect the health of your hair.
Removing the main offenders, the biggest culprit foods that can trigger hair loss is one of the most important steps to growing healthy hair.
Get this step wrong and you will continually be fighting a losing battle with your hair.
Get your diet right, and eat the foods that promote hair health, rather than destroy it, and you’ll protect your hair against further loss and give it the best possible chance for regrowth.
In this article you’ll learn exactly how to do that.
Dairy and Hair Loss
Dairy foods are quite common in today’s food culture. From your morning meal — cereal with milk, yogurt, toast with butter, a smear of cream cheese on your bagel — through lunch and dinner, dairy is everywhere.
Allergies to dairy are common — in fact, it’s the most common allergy in children and infants with approximately 2.5 percent of kids developing a milk allergy in their first few years of life (1).
Food Allergy Resource and Education (F.A.R.E.), a group dedicated to providing information for food allergy sufferers, suggest that people with dairy allergies should avoid the following foods (2):
- Butter, butter fat, butter oil, butter acid, butter ester(s)
- Casein hydrolysate
- Caseinates (in all forms)
- Cottage cheese
- Lactalbumin, lactalbumin phosphate
- Milk (in all forms including condensed, derivative, dry, evaporated, goat’s milk and milk from other animals, low-fat, malted, milkfat, non-fat, powder, protein, skimmed, solids, whole)
- Milk protein hydrolysate
- Rennet casein
- Sour cream, sour cream solids
- Sour milk solids
- Whey (in all forms)
- Whey protein hydrolysate
Other Possible Sources of Milk:
- Artificial butter flavor
- Baked goods
- Caramel candies
- Lactic acid starter culture and other bacterial cultures
- Luncheon meat, hot dogs and sausages, which may use the milk protein casein as a binder. Also, deli meat slicers are often used for both meat and cheese products, leading to cross-contact. (3)
- Non-dairy products, as many contain casein
- Shellfish is sometimes dipped in milk to reduce the fishy odor. Ask questions when buying shellfish.
- Tuna fish, as some brands contain casein
- Some specialty products made with milk substitutes (i.e., soy-, nut- or rice-based dairy products) are manufactured on equipment shared with milk.
- Many restaurants put butter on grilled steaks to add extra flavor. You can’t see the butter after it melts.
- Some medications contain milk protein.
As you can see, milk is, quite literally, everywhere.
Remember, some people have subtle sensitivities to certain foods. With a dairy allergy this common, there are bound to be numerous people who are also sensitive.
Dairy and Insulin Resistance
Besides allergies and sensitivities, however, dairy has been shown to cause certain problems in our bodies, some of which are directly linked to androgenetic alopecia.
For example, studies show that milk has a direct causal link to acne (4).
Dairy products aggravate acne by elevating insulin and insulin-like growth factor – 1 (IGF-1). Androgenetic alopecia is also associated with insulin resistance and diabetes, so if dairy is increasing insulin in your body, it is affecting your hair. (5)(6)(7).
Dairy and Inflammation
Another issue with dairy foods are their association with inflammation. While studies regarding the connection between dairy and inflammation are sparse, there is evidence that the process of pasteurization and the conditions of the cows giving the milk can cause an inflammatory response (8)(9).
There is evidence that hormones given to cows to keep them producing milk may have an impact on estrogens and IGF-1 in humans who ingest the resulting dairy products (10).
Finally, pasteurization, the process by which modern dairy produces ensure their milk is pathogen-free, causes significant changes to milk proteins (13).
These changes make the proteins unfamiliar to the human body, which processes the changed proteins as invaders, increasing inflammation body-wide, including your scalp and hair follicles (14).
Dairy and Di-hydrotestosterone (DHT)
Finally, milk from pregnant cows contains 5a-pregnanedione and 5a-androstanedione, both of which are precursors to DHT. DHT stimulates sebum production, which is an indication of 5-alpha-reductase (5AR) activity in the scalp (15)(16)(17).
5AR is the mechanism that produces yet more DHT, sending hair loss into a vicious circle (18).
Fish Contaminated with Mercury
It’s no surprise that mercury is bad for you — this substance has been known to be extremely toxic for many years. However, a study conducted by researchers in San Francisco found that many types of seafood currently being consumed are filled with mercury. (19).
The study went on to detail the conditions associated with mercury toxicity, one of which is hair loss (20).
If you want to keep mercury-laden fish out of your diet, avoid these:
- Atlantic cod
- Bigeye/yellowfin tuna
- Chilean Sea Bass
- Imported swordfish
- King mackerel
- Orange roughy
And choose these, instead:
- Atlantic mackerel
- Oysters (farmed)
- Salmon, wild
- Sardines, Pacific
Foods High in Selenium
Selenium is a mineral that is necessary in the human body — in small amounts. It’s important for thyroid function, protection from free radicals, immunity, and reproduction (21).
But an adult between 19-50 only needs 55 mcg. per day, and that can be found in seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy (22). The foods highest in selenium are:
- Brazil nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Pinto Beans
- Grass-fed beef
- Skipjack tuna
- Wild-caught salmon
- Beef Liver
- Navy beans
Recently, there have been studies looking at selenium supplementation as a cancer preventative, however, the same researcher, Dr. Margaret Rayman from the University of Surrey, found that selenium had a strong connection to hair fall. (23).
Selenium often appears in many multivitamin + mineral supplements, so read the label carefully and adjust your diet to ensure you’re not getting more selenium than you need.
Though not officially a food, aspartame is found in widely-consumed artificially-sweetened soft drinks.
This sweetener has a controversial history, having been associated with adverse health effects, despite a lack of scientific evidence showing it as a causative factor (24).
Still, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compiled a list of 92 symptoms associated with aspartame, which included hair changes. (25)
However, some, like Dr. Janet Hull, think the powerful diet lobby has slanted the research or prevented contrary research from being published (26).
Of course, that’s only a theory.
What is fact is that aspartame is a source of methanol, a highly toxic substance. The National Library of Medicine shows that methanol exposure is responsible for a number of toxic symptoms — from Parkinson’s disease to dermatitis (27).
If methanol causes dermatitis, it is possible that the methanol in aspartame is affecting the skin of your scalp and increasing hair thinning and fall (28).
It’s interesting to note that aspartame consumption accounts for the most methanol exposure in the United States (29).
Sugar and High-Glycemic Carbohydrates
Sugar, and high-glycemic carbohydrates that convert readily to sugar in your body, are closely linked to hair loss (30).
When you eat sugar, you blood sugar levels spike, insulin is released and a number of changes take place at the cellular level, including rampant inflammation (31).
Sugar, refined or natural, is present in just about every food, so it’s not avoidable. But, staying away from sugar-laden processed foods and whole foods high in high-glycemic carbs should be part of your hair-growth plan.
Processed foods that are high in sugar include (32):
- Breakfast cereals
- Barbecue sauce
- Canned fruit
- Snack cakes or pies
- Cereal and granola bars
- Instant hot cereal
- Jarred spaghetti sauce
- Juice drinks
- Iced tea
- Energy drinks
- Frozen breakfast foods
- Frozen desserts
High-glycemic whole foods include (33):
- White bread or bagel
- Corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, instant oatmeal
- Shortgrain white rice, rice pasta, macaroni and cheese from mix
- Russet potato, pumpkin
- Pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, saltine crackers
- Melons and pineapple
Several things can affect the glycemic index (GI) (the calculation that shows if the food is high or low in sugars) of a food.
Generally, the more processed a food is, the higher it will be on the glycemic scale. Adding fat and fiber to a food tends to lower the GI.
Other factors that can affect the sugar content of your food include (34)
- Ripeness — More ripe means higher in sugar.
- Processing — This doesn’t just mean packaged foods. A mashed potato has more sugar than a whole potato, fruit juice is more sugary than the same fruit eaten whole, and stone ground wheat bread is lower in sugar than white bread.
- Cooking method — Cooking a food for longer raises the GI level, as in al dente versus soft pasta.
- Variety — Wild rice has a lower GI than brown rice, which is lower than white rice.
Sugar and Inflammation
You already know that inflammation plays a part in hair loss.
In fact, chronic systemic inflammation is the cause of many serious health issues such as:
- asthma (35)
- arthritis (36)
- cancer (37)
- depression (38)
- heart disease (39)
- androgenetic alopecia (40)
Inflammation and Hair Loss
A flood of inflammatory cytokines accompany these “age-related” disorders. In hair loss, scalp biopsies show activated T-cells in the lower portions of follicles (41).
Inflammation is also indicated by the moderate infiltration of white blood cells as well as collagen deposits are found around the base of follicles in 40% of cases of androgenetic alopecia, but only 10% of cases not exhibiting androgenic alopecia (42).
Occasional eosinophils and mast cells, other markers of immune response, can be seen.
A modest degree of chronic inflammation around the upper part of hair follicles has been well described by many investigators (43).
Inflammation also encourages cellular changes around the lower areas of the follicles in some cases, which occasionally involve follicular stelae.
How Sugar and High-Glycemic Carbs Boost Inflammation
Animal studies have drawn a link between a high-sugar diet and insulin resistance, including increased gut permeability, and low-grade chronic inflammation (46).
This link between high inflammatory markers and sugar is confirmed by human studies.
One study featuring 29 healthy people showed that an increase in inflammatory markers, insulin resistance and LDL cholesterol occurred when the participants drank one 375-ml can of soda per day, which is 40 grams of added sugar (47).
In fact, in a study on overweight people, drinking one can of sugar-loaded soda each day for six month led to increased uric acid. Uric acid is a well-known trigger for insulin resistance and inflammation. Participants in the study who drank milk, water, or diet soda showed no increase in uric acid levels (48).
From these studies, we learn that drinking beverages high in sugar can cause inflammation levels to spike. Further studies, like the one below, show this detrimental effect can continue for a considerable time after consumption.
Researchers found that consuming just 50 grams of fructose caused an increase in C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, just 30 minutes later. Frighteningly, the participants’ CRP numbers remained high for more than two hours after fructose ingestion (49).
One study showed that consuming 50 grams of refined carbs, in this case from white bread, caused blood sugar levels to spike. Participants also saw an increase in the inflammatory marker Nf-kB (53).
What You Can Do
Don’t panic — you can reduce the inflammation caused by sugar through managing your lifestyle and diet. Simple changes like keeping processed and sugary foods off the menu can help lower inflammation levels in the body (54).
With sugar, inflammation is dose-dependent. The more sugar you consume, the more inflammation is present in your body (55).
On a positive note, regular physical activity reduces inflammatory markers, as well as getting rid of unsightly and unhealthy belly fat (59).
Still, one of the easiest ways to reduce inflammation is by making dietary changes.
A great way to improve cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure, and improve insulin resistance — all things related to chronic inflammation — is to replace processed foods with whole foods (60).
In particular, reducing consumption of fructose consumption resulted in a 30 percent reduction of inflammatory blood markers (61).
Here are some additional ways to reduce inflammation:
- Limit processed edibles: By reducing or eliminating these products, you’ll naturally exclude key sources of added sugar like soda, cakes, cookies and candy, as well as white bread, pasta and rice.
- Read labels: Look for hidden sugars in the products you buy. Ingredients like sucrose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, and dextrose all indicate added sugar. In fact, anything ending in a -ose should be suspect.
- Choose complex, whole-grain carbs: If you have to eat pastas or grains, choose the whole-grain versions, which contain fiber and antioxidants. This helps reduce blood sugar spikes and inflammation. Good choices are quinoa, barley, whole-grain oats, and wild rice.
- Focus on fruits and vegetables: Besides containing antioxidants and vitamins and minerals, fruits and vegetables help alkalise your body, which further protects against and reduces inflammation.
- Choose antioxidants: Foods rich in antioxidants can help counteract inflammation. Besides a spectrum of vegetables and fruits; nuts, seeds, and foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids are good for this.
- Move: Both aerobic and anaerobic (resistance) exercise can contribute to inflammation reduction.
- Reduce stress: Use relaxation techniques exercise can help control stress and reduce inflammation.
You might have to put aside your chicken wings and burgers if you want to hold on to your hair.
Studies suggest a link between a diet high in saturated fat and hair loss (62). The catalyst is thought to be the impact that saturated fat has on testosterone, which in turn produced DHT.
Increased DHT equals increased hair loss.
How Saturated Fat Increases Testosterone Levels
We consume a wide variety of fats in our diet, and not all fats are created equal. Below is a list of dietary fats, including common sources.
- Saturated fatty-acids (SFAs) – This type of fatty acid is found in coconut oil, palm oil, red meat, dairy, lard, and butter. Fats containing SFAs are solid at room temperature.
- Monounsaturated fatty-acids (MUFAs) – These fatty acids, contained in olive oil and avocado oil, are liquid at room temperature .
- Polyunsaturated fatty-acids (PUFAs) – These fatty acids appear in canola oil, cottonseed oil, fish, margarine, and soybean oil and are also liquid at room temperature.
Supporting the importance of fat intake is a Finnish study where researchers tracked participants as they switched their diets from one made up of 40 percent fat from animal sources to 20 percent fat from PUFA sources, and back again.
When the subjects were on the low-fat diet, testosterone levels fell. They immediately increased again once the participants went back to their 40 percent animal-fat diet (65).
Another study involving a similar research scenario forged a link between a lower-fat diet that got most of its fats from PUFA and lower androgen levels (66).
This can, at least in part, account for the reason vegan men have lower testosterone levels. Vegan diets are low in fat and their fat sources contain mostly PUFA.
But does this mean that a low-fat diet means lower testosterone?
A study of hockey players who lowered fat intake while increasing carbohydrate intake actually raised their testosterone levels (69).
How PUFAs Damage Your Hair
PUFAs tend to suppress thyroid and testosterone hormones, as in the study above, because they are unstable when exposed to heat and oxygen, properties that cause these fats to undergo a process called lipid per oxidation in your body. This means they’re creating oxidative damage and free radicals that are damaging your cells (70).
That damage contributes to inflammation, which as we’ve seen, can be a causative factor in hair loss (71).
Hydrogenated oils, which are normally vegetable oils which contain PUFAs, are most commonly used in deep-frying foods. These oils have a proven record of increasing inflammation markers in humans (72).
In addition, hydrogenating oils to prevent rancidity changes the molecular structure of the oil, turning it into a trans-fat, meaning it adds atoms of hydrogen to the saturated fat, a process which has been proven to have a harmful effect on your body — and hair (73).
The best way to protect your hair is to avoid all hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated cooking oils and any food product that lists either of these ingredients on their label.
One factor that is often overlooked is the pH balance of the foods we eat.
Acidic foods tend to fall into one of the above categories – such as dairy foods and fried foods. However, there are also “healthy” food options that are on the acidic side of the scale.
So, is there really a connection between consumption of acidic foods and hair fall?
Humans require a very specific pH level in the blood serum – 7.4, or between 7.35 and 7.45 to be more specific – to survive (74).
But what role do pH levels play in the human body?
Even further, an acidic environment can promote the development of certain diseases (76). It may even promote inflammation.
The net acid load of the human diet has changed drastically when compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors (77). On average, we consume foods with higher acid pH.
So, is there any connection to hair loss?
While the connection between diet and serum pH levels hasn’t been proven, it also hasn’t been discounted.
Though, there are still a few reasons to keep your intake of acidic foods low.
Scientists know that an acidic diet can contribute to an increased acidity of urine, and even loss of calcium and other micronutrients (74). This loss of micronutrients may contribute to a deficiency, which itself can cause issues such as hair loss.
Plus, the possible connection to inflammation should be enough to deter an overly acidic diet.
Processed versus Unprocessed Foods
Processed foods lack fiber, whereas most natural (unprocessed) foods are filled with this health-giving material.
Not eating enough fiber causes a build-up of waste products in the colon, since fiber tends to “sweep” the colon free of waste (74).
This is why constipation, fatigue, feeling heavy and full are so common in people with low-fiber diets.
This build-up of waste in the digestive tract does three things:
- Stops nutrients being absorbed into the body properly
- Stops wastes being removed from the body properly
- Causes waste foods to leak back into the blood through the colon
In addition, fiber directly affects insulin requirements. Lower insulin levels mean less inflammation, which, in turn, means less hair loss (78).
Low Fiber and Poor Absorption
If the wall of your digestive tract is coated in waste, nutrients and minerals from the foods you eat can’t be efficiently absorbed and used by your body (79).
This causes a chronic nutrient deficiency that can impede your body’s ability to build new hair follicles (80).
The body will also ‘sacrifice’ less important uses of the limited nutrients and minerals for more important areas such as repairing vital organs which are crucial to your health.
This means your hair loss may be pointing to the fact that you’re not absorbing nutrients well.
Eating for Hair Growth
As you can see, what you put in your body has a very real impact on the health of your hair. In order to curtail hair loss, reduce or remove these hair-harming foods from your diet:
- Sugar and high-glycemic carbs
- Fish contaminated with mercury
- High selenium foods
- Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners
- Fried foods
If you want the best health for your hair, you’ll need to stick to a ‘healthy gut’ diet.
Here’s an overview.
The Healthy Gut Diet
Processed foods contain preservatives, which are there to kill bacteria. Unfortunately, preservatives don’t discriminate between bacteria types. While they can keep your bread from molding, they can also wreak havoc on your gut bacteria.
Inside our gut are billions of bacteria that perform many healthful functions as well as helping to digest food. There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria that play a very important role in overall health (81).
Processed foods, which are full of preservatives and other artificial additives, kill many of these healthy bacteria, upsetting the balance and causing health issues down the road.
Although the connection between healthy gut bacteria and hair loss is not entirely clear, what is clear is that improving the balance of healthy gut bacteria can help to stop hair loss, and help re-grow your hair.
One of the best ways to do this is with prebiotics and probiotics.
Prebiotics are foods that cannot be digested by the human gastrointestinal tract. These include oats, barley, soybeans, tree nuts, and garlic just to name a few (82).
They can, however, be digested by probiotics. In short, they are a food source for probiotics.
So, what are probiotics and why are they so important?
Probiotics are the ‘good’ bacteria that reside in the GI tract. They help maintain a balance with the ‘bad’ bacteria while also aiding in digestion and even reducing inflammatory markers (83).
A healthy combination of prebiotics and probiotics, then, contributes to a healthy gut and gastrointestinal tract. This, in turn, contributes to a healthier body overall.
So, to improve your gut bacteria you should:
- Avoid processed foods
- Avoid preservatives
- Avoid antibiotics
- Drink fermented drinks like wine (in moderation), kombucha, and kefir
- Take a high quality probiotic
- Eat fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt.
Adding these delicious ingredients to your daily menu can provide your gut’s microbiome with what it needs to balance itself for optimal functioning.
Choose Low-Glycemic Foods
It’s now fairly clear that blood sugar levels play an important role in human health. Specifically high blood sugar levels can cause all sorts of health issues.
And the studies mentioned earlier show that sugar and high-glycemic foods promote chronic inflammation in the body, leading to hair loss, as well as a host of other adverse health conditions.
Eating an alkalizing diet will automatically help your control your blood sugar levels, as low-glycemic foods are highly alkalizing.
If you’re committed to regrowing your hair and stopping further loss, you’ll need to make some dietary adjustments and adopt a cleaner diet for best results.
This will help lower inflammation, promote healthy gut bacteria, and control the pathways that increase DHT in your system.
Fortunately, besides being the perfect way to grow stronger, thicker hair, a balanced diet also gives you access to a cornucopia of flavorful, nutritious, and delicious foods for a varied menu you’ll never tire of.