Nov 19, 2023

Sugar and Hair Loss: Is There A Connection?

Time for some sweet, sweet science

Formulate user Gina wrote in with some questions about sugar consumption and hair loss:

I'm worried about the amount of sugar in my and my family's diet. I'm trying to reduce it. That stuff is everywhere. And as I've reduced it, I have noticed that my hair has improved, it seems more thick and full. Is there a link between hair loss and sugar?

Thanks for writing in, Gina!

We'll be honest: the problem with answering this question is that there's not a lot of good, scientific evidence available that examines the relationship between sugar consumption and hair loss. To date, there have only been two studies that we could locate that examined the relationship between sugar and hair loss... aaand they each came to opposite conclusions.

The first study, published in 2020, found that Chinese individuals who frequently consumed high-sugar beverages were less likely to experience severe hair loss compared to the other people in the study. Note that this doesn't mean that the folks who drank sugared beverages didn't experience hair loss - it just means that it was less severe. The researchers determined that the consumption of high-sugar beverages could serve as a potential protective factor against severe hair loss. 

The second study, published in 2023, also examined the relationship between high-sugar beverages and hair loss, specifically male pattern baldness in young Chinese men. The researchers in this study reported that male pattern baldness was positively linked to higher rates of male pattern baldness, meaning that those individuals who often drank sugary drinks were more likely to experience this type of hair loss. The researchers in this study speculated that sugar in the drinks could lead to higher sugar levels in the blood, which could affect the hair follicles and increase the likelihood of hair loss.

To complicate things further, both of these studies relied on self-reported data, a data collection method that can be pretty flawed. None of the data has been verified because it was all anonymously submitted online. There's no trained professional involved to assess each person's hair loss - it's all based on the opinion of the person who is suffering from hair loss.

 This is important to consider for a study that's on hair loss, as some people might think that their hair loss is worse than it is - hair loss can feel embarrassing, and sometimes when something feels embarrassing our brains exaggerate how bad it is. If you've ever gotten a tiny pimple that no one else but you seems able to see, you've experienced this first hand. Humans are self-conscious creatures, and we're prone to perceiving our physical flaws as worse than they are.

Also, both of these studies were focused on people who drink sugary beverages in China. That's a lot more specific than what Gina wrote in to ask us. Even if, in a few years time, there are multiple studies high-quality studies that all report that Chinese men who drink several sugary sodas a day all experience male pattern baldness, that finding might not apply to Gina if she's, say, a woman in her twenties who lives in the midwestern United States who doesn't consume soda but does eat a lot of snacks that contain sugar. Not all findings generalize across genders, ethnicities, cultures, or populations.

So. Given that there's conflicting research on sugar and hair loss, where does that leave us in answering Gina's question on sugar and hair loss? Is there something that we're missing?

Sugar, PCOS, and hair loss

According to registered dietitian Alyssa Pacheco, there's one medical condition under which sugar consumption could potentially have an impact on hair loss: PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome.

"Hair loss is a common symptom for someone with PCOS", says Alyssa. "It's usually caused by a hormone imbalance, such as high levels of testosterone. High insulin levels, or insulin resistance, is also common with PCOS -- this can trigger the ovaries to pump out higher than normal amounts of testosterone leading to hair loss. I'm not aware of any other health conditions that can cause hair loss that's related to sugar consumption."

So if you're a person who has PCOS, it's possible that having a diet that's quite consistently high in added sugars could exacerbate the hair loss that you may already be having as a PCOS symptom. 

Alyssa says that to understand the link between PCOS hair loss and sugar, you have to recognize that having an occasional treat won't make your hair suddenly start falling out of your head. "Someone's overall diet is what really matters - the occasional high-sugar meal or dessert doesn't automatically trigger hair loss, she shares. "The overall pattern of what your diet looks like is most important than individual food choices." So no need to panic over that slice of birthday cake - it's okay to enjoy your life and indulge in moderation.

Also, sugar isn't the enemy, even if you have PCOS. "Naturally occurring sugars are in many of the healthful foods we eat daily such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and even some grains," says Alyssa. "These types of foods usually come with additional health benefits, such as vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. These types of naturally occurring sugar, such as fructose in fruit, breaks down much more slowly than added sugar does. Fructose is broken down by the liver and doesn't have as much of an impact on blood sugar levels as added sugar does."

But what should you do if you've got PCOS, are experiencing hair loss, have a sweet tooth, and don't want to just eat an apple every time you're craving something sweet? Alyssa's got some recommendations.  

"Of course, some people may recommend going with naturally sweetened foods, such as fruit, but we all know that sometimes that just doesn't cut it. Some sweet food products that still have some good nutrition in them that I like to recommend for when you have those cravings: Kind frozen bars, Yasso bars, Wonderful honey roasted pistachios, chocolate hummus, Skinny Dipped almonds or cashews."

Yum. We're getting hungry just thinking about those treats. 

So, what's the relationship between sugar and hair loss?

There's no rigorously documented link between sugar consumption and hair loss. There have been a couple of studies examining a potential link, but the research behind them has reported conflicted findings. Also, these studies may not be generalizable to a wider population. That being said, eating a lot of sugar consistently could potentially make hair loss worse if you suffer from PCOS. 

Wanna learn more about the ins and outs of hair and skin care? Here's what you should read next:

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