Androgenetic alopecia, or male pattern baldness, is a complicated condition. Despite plaguing men – and women – for thousands of years, it is still not fully understood. The conventional wisdom says that it’s entirely caused by genetics. But new evidence suggests diet may play a role too, with hair loss linked to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. In this post, we’ll look at how to reverse these conditions and regrow your hair by changing what you eat.
Hair loss, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome
Interactions between hormones in the body are complicated. A change in the level of one hormone will often lead to changes in levels of other hormones too.
But male pattern baldness may tell us something about these complicated interactions in the body.
The current medical understanding of androgenetic alopecia says that the male hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT) binds to hair follicles, causing them to shrink. Over time, the follicle gets smaller and smaller, until it eventually stops producing hair.
These three things – DHT, insulin, and metabolic syndrome – are all linked to diet. Certain foods cause insulin levels to rise, which can in turn lead to more available DHT. These same foods also increase the likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome, as we’ll see.
Studies (see above) have shown that men who start losing their hair at a young age are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is the general name given to a cluster of – usually associated – medical conditions. These include:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
- High serum triglycerides
- Low HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels
On that last point, HDL levels can be increased by consuming linolenic and linoleic acids (“good” fats, or polyunsaturated omega 6 fatty acids, to be precise). And what’s interesting is these good fats are also potent 5-alpha reductase inhibitors. 5-alpha reductase is what converts testosterone to DHT.
This suggests, then, a possible link between diet and DHT levels: low dietary HDL leads to more 5-alpha reductase, which leads to higher DHT levels, which leads to increased hair loss.
It will almost certainly be beneficial for anyone to get more omega 6 fatty acids in their diet, regardless of hair loss. Foods high in these good fats include:
- Nuts (walnuts, cashews, pecans, etc.)
- Seeds (flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
- Vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, poppy seed, etc.)
“Our practice-based case-control study in men aged 19–50 years showed a strikingly increased risk of hyperinsulinaemia and insulin-resistance-associated disorders such as obesity, hypertension, and dislipidaemia in men with early onset of alopecia (<35), compared with age-matched controls. This finding supports the hypothesis that early androgenetic alopecia could be a clinical marker of insulin resistance.”
Insulin resistance is when the body’s cells fail to respond in the normal way to insulin.
Normally, insulin is produced by the body when glucose (sugar) is released into the blood as a result of digestion of carbohydrates. The role of insulin is to move glucose from the blood into the body’s cells, where it is stored as energy. However, with insulin resistance, the cells don’t respond properly. Instead of absorbing the glucose, it stays in the blood, resulting in high blood sugar levels and more insulin to be released.
What’s more, because blood sugar levels remain high, the body continues producing insulin. This means high blood insulin levels, which can eventually lead to Type 2 diabetes if undetected.
So, it is established that there is a correlation between insulin resistance and androgenetic alopecia. But could there also be a causal relationship?
Insulin, SHBG, and DHT
“As SHBG is not known to alter the production or metabolism of insulin, whereas insulin has been shown in vitro to decrease the synthesis of SHBG, it seems a reasonable conclusion that the predictable inverse relationship between serum insulin and SHBG indicates that insulin controls SHBG synthesis in vivo.”
This is significant because SHBG binds to DHT, preventing the DHT from binding to androgen receptors. High levels of SHBG thus mean lower levels of DHT are available to bind to hair follicles and cause hair loss.
Less insulin = more hair
Secondly, Diazoxide – a drug which lowers insulin levels – has been shown to increase hair thickness and density – in monkeys, at least:
“All 5 diazoxide-treated animals showed thickening and maintenance of the frontal hair during the entire treatment period (16 months). Analysis of folliculograms showed progressive enlargement of hair follicular size and acceleration of its cyclic growth from telogen to anagen phase and prolongation of anagen phase in all treated animals.”
Returning to SHBG, it’s likely that Diazoxide, by reducing insulin levels, increased SHBG. This increased SHBG would bind to DHT, increasing hair growth.
Obviously, it’s not recommended to take Diazoxide – or any drug that artificially lowers insulin levels – without medical approval.
Fortunately, though, there are plenty of ways to reduce insulin levels naturally and healthily. This should not only make your hair thicker, but improve your general health as well!
The most important factor in controlling insulin sensitivity is diet.
High carbohydrate, high sugar foods which lead to high blood sugar should be avoided, such as:
- Refined breakfast cereals
These carbohydrate-rich food sources spike blood sugar levels dramatically. Reducing your consumption of them will result in a more stable blood sugar level and therefore reduce insulin levels.
For an added hair growth boost, increase consumption of omega 6 fatty acids in their place, such as nuts, seeds, oily fish, and avocado.
The paleo diet is a good starting point if you’re looking to control your insulin levels through diet.
But if reducing starchy carb intake sounds like quite a dramatic overhaul to maintain your hair, there’s another option: exercise – and it doesn’t require hours on a treadmill.
Studies (such as this one and this one) have shown that very intense (>80% of your maximum heart rate) exercise, performed in extremely short bursts (~20 seconds) has a remarkable effect on blood sugar regulation:
“Very brief [high intensity exercise] improves [blood sugar] 1 to 3 days postexercise in both diabetics and non-diabetics.”
To get an idea of what brief, high intensity exercise looks like, check out this video:
Insulin and hair loss
So, those old principles of health – diet and exercise – play an important role in reversing hair loss.
Of course, there is no denying that androgenetic alopecia has a significant genetic element (the clue’s in the name!). For some reason, some people have hair that is more susceptible to DHT.
But if you are suffering from hair loss, there is something you can do about it! Besides the accepted hair loss treatments, controlling your blood sugar levels will significantly improve the health of your hair.
This can be achieved through diet and exercise – but food supplements may also help too.
Biotin, often known as the hair loss vitamin, is believed to prevent hair loss by supporting the production of keratin, the key component of hair and nails. A lesser known effect of this supplement (at least to hair loss sufferers) is that it improves blood sugar regulation. This could be the real reason why there is so much anecdotal support for it as a hair loss treatment. Find out more about biotin here.
But however you choose to reduce your blood sugar, it’s likely to bring health benefits – not just for your hair. As well as causing hair loss, high carbohydrate diets and insulin resistance have been linked with more serious health issues such as obesity, heart disease and inflammation. So, lowering your insulin levels will not only mean thicker hair, but better health too!