Can Gluten Cause Hair Loss?
We know that there are hundreds of symptoms, syndromes, and diseases linked to gluten exposure for those with gluten sensitivity. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are treated independently from their root cause, rather than associated with a broader health issue, like gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. A common example of this is hair loss.
This article will take a closer look at the relationship between gluten and hair loss. It will cover
- How hair grows (the hair growth cycle)
- Different types of hair loss
- The major causes of hair loss
- How Gluten can cause hair loss
- Medicines That Cause Hair Loss
- Natural Tips to Support Health Hair Growth
How Hair Grows
To understand how hair is lost, let’s first understand how hair grows.
There are four phases as described below:
- Anagen: The anagen is the active growth phase in which the follicle enlarges and takes the original shape and the hair fiber is produced. Almost 85–90% of all scalp hairs are in anagen.
- Catagen: During catagen the proximal of the hair shaft is keratinized and forms the club hair. This phase lasts approximately 2 weeks in humans.
- Telogen: During the telogen stage, the hair shaft is transformed to club hair and shed. This stage lasts for 2–3 months, and approximately 10–15% of all hair is in the telogen stage. The processes of the telogen stage are influenced by several modulatory agents like androgens, prolactin, ACTH, retinoids and thyroid hormone.
- Exogen: Also known as shedding, this is the end stage in which hair is shed, or falls out.
Types of Hair Loss Influenced By Nutritional Deficiency
Hair loss can happen for different reasons and each can be characterized by certain nutritional deficiencies.
A brief summary of each is below:
- Telogen Effluvium (Acute & Chronic): Telogen effluvium is a common scalp disorder characterized by excessive shedding of hair. Factors such as drugs, trauma, and emotional and physiological stress can lead to the development of telogen effluvium. These are often driven by nutritional deficiencies, including protein, fatty acid, vitamin D, and zinc. Overall caloric restriction can also lead to telogen effluvium.
- Androgenetic Alopecia: Also known as male or female pattern hair loss, androgenetic alopecia has been linked to overall oxidative stress in the body, which can be caused by general nutrient deficiency. Antioxidant and omega-3 consumption through healthy whole fruits and vegetables and fatty fish can combat oxidative stress in the body.
- Alopecia Areata: Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that causes unpredictable, patchy hair loss. It affects approximately seven million people in the United States. Research has shown Statistically lower serum zinc concentrations in patients with alopecia areata
What Causes Hair Loss?
A number of factors associated with diet, lifestyle, and health status, can cause hair loss.
The different causes are outlined below:
The ingestion of gluten isn’t necessarily the direct cause of hair loss. However, gluten consumption is associated with a number of digestive issues that can then lead to hair loss. For example, gluten can cause the following issues that influence hair loss:
- Microbiome abnormalities: While research is still ongoing, one study has suggested a correlation between microbial dysbiosis and patients with alopecia areata.
- Leaky gut: Ingestion of gluten and unmanaged gluten sensitivities can lead to leaky gut. Leaky gut has been associated with the development of autoimmune disease, including alopecia areata, which can lead to hair loss.
- Hypothyroid: Unmanaged celiac disease is associated with autoimmune thyroid issues, and autoimmune thyroid issues are associated with hair loss.
- Celiac disease: Celiac disease is frequently associated with other autoimmune disorders and research suggests it is also associated with alopecia areata. This relationship also holds true in children. Interestingly, one case study even found that a patient with celiac disease who had previously healed from alopecia areata had a recurrence of hair loss following the accidental ingestion of gluten.
- Nutritional Deficiencies
One of the primary side effects of gluten is damage to the intestinal lining. This damage can lead to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals.
The loss of nutrients long term can contribute to many problems, one of which is hair loss. For example, gluten intolerance and sensitivity can create nutritional deficiencies in the following nutrients:
- Protein: Overall caloric restriction and insufficient protein intake is associated with hair loss.
- Zinc: Research suggests that higher zinc levels correlate with an increase in the hair density
- Iron: Research has demonstrated the relationship between iron status (blood levels of ferritin) and hair loss. In particular, women with iron deficiency status are at a risk of telogen hair loss, likely due to their increased iron needs during menstruation and pregnancy.
- Omega-3 fats: Research suggests that deficiencies of certain essential fatty acids can result from malnutrition and malabsorption and can lead to hair changes, including loss of scalp hair and eyebrows as well as lightening of hair.
- Vitamin D: Research has found that serum levels of Vitamin D tend to be lower in patients with hair loss as compared to controls.
- Vitamin C: Oxidative stress has been linked to hair loss, and vitamin C is a potent antioxidant. Deficiencies are associated with hair loss.
- Calcium: Concentration of calcium in hair exceeds the concentration of calcium in the blood serum and erythrocytes by 200 times. Calcium plays a significant role in maintaining healthy hair, particularly in women in the perimenopause period.
- Selenium: Selenium plays a role in protection from oxidative damage as well as hair follicle morphogenesis. While human studies are limited, animal studies show that selenium deficiencies can lead to both sparse hair growth and progressive hair loss.
- B-vitamins: Research has found that serum levels of several B vitamins, including folate, tend to be lower in patients with hair loss as compared to controls.
- Chemical Exposures
Research suggests that contact dermatitis of the scalp (itchy rashes that can contribute to hair loss) may be caused by common chemicals found in personal care products, like shampoos and conditioners, hair dyes, and metals in hair clasps, pins, and brushes.
- Intense Stress Events
We know that stress can cause a number of health concerns, from disrupted sleep to weight gain to inflammation, and plenty of other issues. Stress can also lead to hair loss.
A number of studies have attempted to identify the link between stress and hair loss. One study looked at the stress hormone corticosterone and found that it prevented the dermal papilla from secreting GAS6, a molecule they showed can activate hair follicle stem cells.
Another study found that one of the stress hormones has the ability to signal through skin cells to repress the activation of hair-follicle stem cells in mice. When this signaling is blocked, hair growth is stimulated. Therefore, when the body is stressed and this signaling is activated, hair growth is stalled.
It is important to remember that stress can come in many forms. Stress isn’t just emotional stress, the body can also experience stress from events like surgery, childbirth, acute or chronic infections or illnesses, or other untreated health concerns. One study found that those who underwent bariatric surgery experience higher rates of hair loss. In addition, another study found that those who contracted the COVID-19 virus experienced higher rates of “excessive” hair loss than controls.
Research has shown that medications can also induce hair loss by interfering with the hair growth cycle. Hair loss triggered by medications may occur immediately on starting a medication, or it may be delayed, sudden or gradual, making it harder to identify the link between the two. The good news is that drug-induced hair loss is typically reversible after discontinuation of the medication.
Medicines That Cause Hair Loss
Many people with undiagnosed celiac disease or gluten sensitivity develop symptoms and diseases as a result. Unfortunately, they are often medicated to treat the symptoms, not the root cause of the issue (the gluten sensitivity). One of the many unintended consequences of overmedication is often hair loss. Exploring a potential gluten sensitivity through our simple quiz and possibly genetic testing can help determine the root cause of any symptoms you may be experiencing.
The following medications are associated with hair loss:
- Acne medications containing synthetic vitamin A (retinoids)
- Antibiotics and antifungal drugs
- Antifungal drugs
- Anti Clotting drugs
- Birth control pills
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs
- High blood pressure medications such as beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, and diuretics
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Mood stabilizers
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Parkinson’s disease drugs
- Thyroid medications
- Weight loss drugs
Natural Tips to Support Healthy Hair
Supporting healthy hair means supporting and healing the root causes of hair loss:
- Proper nutrition (including nutrient testing and supplementation where needed)
- Adequate protein
- Stress management
- Gluten sensitivity testing and gluten avoidance
- Identifying and addressing food and chemical and environmental allergies
- Evaluation of medications that may contribute to hair loss
The bottom line
The health effects of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are far reaching, and many of them can lead to hair loss. If you are experiencing hair loss, I recommend viewing it as a symptom of a more significant underlying issue and taking steps to further investigate its cause. If a gluten sensitivity has not been identified, take our quiz as a first step to uncovering the reason for your symptoms!