Formulate user Susan wrote in with some interesting questions about alcohol and hair loss:
I listened to this science podcast recently that said that there were no positive benefits of drinking alcohol. I was surprised by this, because I thought there were some benefits, so it was a bit of a paradigm shift for me. I wanted to ask you guys a follow-up question - if drinking alcohol is connected to only bad health outcomes overall, could it be connected to hair problems, like hair loss? Or would you have to drink so much alcohol for this to happen that you would basically be an alcoholic? I'm looking forward to hearing more about this! Thank you.
Thanks for writing in, Susan!
Before we dive into talking about the relationship between hair health and alcohol, we need to back up to add some context to the relationship between alcohol and health overall.
Science has had an interesting relationship with alcohol - back in the day, experts actually used to believe that drinking alcohol could lead to some positive health effects. If you remember that media storm around the idea that drinking a glass of red wine was good for your heart, that's what we're talking about.
"Originally, it was thought that having 1 to 2 drinks a day was associated with health benefits," says Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, NLC, a dietitian in private practice at Root Nutrition and Education. "So having 3/4 drinks a week was considered fine However, newer research shows there is no healthy dose of alcohol."
She cites a 2022 article that examined if there are any benefits from consuming small doses of alcohol. In it, the researchers came to the conclusion that "the healthy dose of alcohol is zero".
Unfortunately, a lot of people continue to believe that alcohol can have health benefits - because it was previously "scientifically proven" (and yes, that's in quotes for a reason) that alcohol could be good for your health, this myth has become pretty ingrained.
"Maybe you can say the poison is in the dose, but it's hard to really know if there is an okay level of alcohol when you look at the science and you see a lot of harmful effects on the body when alcohol is metabolized by the body, says Jeanette. "Its by-products are literally toxic to the system and the body's number one goal is to get it out of the body. So it's hard to say that something that dehydrates and causes damage to the body could be good for any type of health."
One way that alcohol harms your body as well as your ability to grow hair is its ability to interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food.
"The body sees alcohol as a toxic component so its main goal is to get it out of the system as quickly as possible," says Jeanette. "This means that alcohol metabolism will take center stage above any other nutrients. So even if someone is consuming food with alcohol the nutrients in the meal may not be absorbed as well as the alcohol."
It makes sense that your body sees alcohol as something that needs to be eliminated ASAP - when alcohol is digested, acetaldehyde is produced. According to the CDC, acetaldehyde is a carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. The more alcohol you drink, the higher your cancer risk becomes.
But when your body desperately tries to push alcohol out of your system, it essentially throws the baby out with the bathwater. If you have food in your stomach in addition to alcohol, the body isn't able to get all of the nutrients from the food that it normally would. This is one of the reasons that people who are heavy drinkers often suffer from secondary malnutrition, meaning that while the person is taking in enough food, they're unable to absorb what they need from the food and become malnourished as a result.
This is where hair problems can come in. "Excessive alcohol consumption can negatively impact overall health and ultimately lead to hair loss in several ways," says Sophia Deahl MS, RD, functional medicine dietitian. "Alcohol consumption can cause poor nutrient absorption which can result in nutritional deficiencies, several of which are important for healthy hair. Lacking these nutrients can directly lead to hair thinning or hair loss. Alcohol abuse can impact the absorption and utilization of vitamins and minerals important for hair health including biotin, zinc, iron, folic acid, vitamin D and B12."
So yes, it appears that drinking alcohol may interfere with digesting the food that's already in your stomach and can prevent you from absorbing the nutrients you need to grow healthy hair.
All that being said, however, this definitely doesn't mean you should drink on an empty stomach. Food slows down the absorption of alcohol, potentially limiting the harm to your system. Also, drinking on an empty stomach is a surefire way to get a bad hangover the next day, and who wants that?
Another problem with alcohol and nutrition: the more you drink, the more that your body is unable to digest nutrients even when you aren't drinking - it can do lasting damage. "It seems like the more alcohol taken in the more the system gets damaged which can cause nutrients to not be absorbed," says Jeanette. "Even acute ingestion of alcohol may cause serious damage to the digestive tract."
Acute alcohol ingestion is a fancier way to describe binge drinking, defined by the CDC as "consuming 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women." A lot of people who wouldn't consider themselves to be alcoholics engage in binge drinking behaviors, and it can have serious consequences for their ability to be well-nourished, and for their ability to grow healthy hair.
For example, binge drinking can interfere with your ability to digest protein. "Excessive alcohol use is linked to poor gut health as well as low stomach acid, which is important for breaking down protein," says Sophia. "If we cannot break down protein, we cannot have healthy hair."
Protein is an essential ingredient for hair health - your hair is made of it. And if there's a deficiency of protein in your body due to an inability to digest protein-rich foods, your body will not prioritize using what protein it has to grow hair. Instead, it will use it for activities that are essential to keep you alive, such as repairing the cells of your inner organs.
The problems don't stop with protein digestion. Sophia continues: "Chronic alcohol use is also linked to dysbiosis, an overgrowth of bacteria in the microbiome, as well as the breakdown of the intestinal lining; both are important for digestion, absorption, and the synthesis of nutrients. They are both also important for maintaining gut health. Dysbiosis and a weak intestinal lining, as well as poor nutrient status can lead to a vicious cycle of poor gut health and nutrient deficiencies, perpetuating hair loss."
Yikes. Maybe next time you're at a party, it wouldn't hurt to skip that last drink and have a sparkling water instead.
According to our experts, alcohol can interfere with hair growth, which can lead to hair thinning and hair loss. This can happen in multiple ways - it can impact your body's ability to absorb nutrients whenever there's alcohol in your system. And if you drink a lot of alcohol, it can also damage your body so you're unable to absorb nutrients even when you aren't drinking.
And while these are the mechanisms that we focused on in this article, they certainly aren't the only ways that alcohol can lead to hair loss - it can also dehydrate your scalp, inflame your hair follicles, interfere with your blood's ability to deliver nutrients to your scalp... there are a lot of ways alcohol is not good for your hair.
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