Poor digestion, upset stomach, and other digestive maladies are tell-tale signs of a poorly functioning gut. But have you ever stopped to consider that your gut’s health is impacting more than just your digestion?
Your gut can tell you a lot about your health in general, and it can even lend insight into your hair loss woes.
This is why I strongly advocate for a healthy, varied diet in my own hair loss treatment program and to the followers of my Facebook group.
In this article, I’m going to introduce you to the proven link between gut health and hair loss. This will include a look at the scientific studies.
Even more importantly, I’m going to show you how to improve the balance within your gut’s microbiota so you can experience better health and perhaps even increased hair growth.
Let’s jump right in!
A Brief Introduction to the Gut’s Biome
According to Shreiner, Kao, and Young the human microbiome is “composed of bacteria, archaea, viruses and eukaryotic microbes that reside in and on our bodies (1).” The gut microbiome, then, is the collection of microbes that exist within the gastrointestinal tract. This includes everything from the mouth and esophagus to the stomach and colon.
But what exactly is a healthy biome, and how does this contribute to our overall health?
In short, a healthy gut biome is one that contains vast quantities of ‘good’ bacteria (known as probiotics) in order to keep the ‘bad’ bacteria at bay. When this balance is achieved, it contributes to a functioning metabolic and immune system and protects against harmful pathogens such as viruses and bacteria (including Salmonella enteritis) (1).
However, the benefits of a healthy gut go further than that. One way it does so is by helping to promote hair growth.
How Can Gut Health Help with Hair Growth?
While it may seem far fetched that changes within the gut can impact your hair, there’s proof to show this to be true. Let’s take a closer look.
1. It Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is a natural process which occurs either in the short term (acute) or long term (chronic). Acute cases of inflammation are generally beneficial, as they help to protect injured bones and muscles and can attack foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria.
But when inflammation becomes chronic – whether due to an allergy or overactive immune response – is when it can cause trouble for the hair.
The hair follicles are affected by inflammation just as any other organ in the body (2). This means that long-term inflammation of the scalp – which may be caused by sensitivity to DHT, bacteria or fungi, or injury – can slow the hair growth process and even lead to hair fall.
Fortunately, there are various steps you can take to correct this problem. You’ll first need to identify the cause of inflammation and treat it directly. You can also improve the environment with the help of probiotics which play a major role in gut health.
For example, one study found that supplementation with probiotics (Lactobacillus reuteri, specifically) upregulates levels of the cytokine interleukin-10 (IL-10). This cytokine is an anti-inflammatory, so higher levels throughout the body will reduce inflammation. It has even been shown to suppress proinflammatory cytokines (3).
Cytokines aren’t the only factor that control inflammation, though. A group of specialized cells known as T cells also play a role. And probiotics have been shown to play a role in anti-inflammatory t cell regulation (4).
2. It Strengthens the Immune System
Speaking of t-cells, let’s look more closely at the impact that probiotics have on the immune system.
The immune system is the body’s defense mechanism against viruses, ‘bad’ bacteria, and other invaders. As proven in various studies, the immune system and gut microbiota are inextricably linked (5).
One way the immune system works is by producing a variety of cell types with different functions. T cells are just one cell type and their function is to target damaged (i.e. virus-infected) cells before they have a chance to replicate.
They work by maintaining tolerance to self-antigens which means the immune system will not be prone to attacking your body. This can prevent autoimmune forms of hair loss such as Alopecia Areata (AA).
3. It Supports Anagen Phase
Before I highlight the role that gut health plays in hair growth, it’s important that you first understand the hair growth process (7). The process takes place in three stages. They are:
- Anagen (active)
- Catagen (transition)
- Telogen (rest)
The anagen phase is the longest one, as it lasts anywhere from two to six years (8). The length of the phase will determine the length of the produced hair, but there are many factors that can shorten the phase considerably. One such factor is follicle miniaturization which is seen in patients with AGA.
But what does all of this have to do with gut health?
It’s been shown that probiotics can support anagen phase (9):
This simply means that more follicles are in anagen phase at once and it lasts longer on average.
4. It Can Balance Out Your Hormones
The foods you eat can have a direct impact on gut health and this will affect hormone levels throughout your body. Let me explain.
Hormones are regulatory substances released by the body to stimulate cells and tissues to act accordingly. These hormones can be seen as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but when they work together they create a balance that is necessary.
So how does gut health contribute to hormone equilibrium?
The ‘right’ foods (i.e. those that contain good bacteria) can help to balance the gut and increase testosterone (the male sex hormone) (10). And while you may think an increase in testosterone is bad – after all, testosterone is one component in the production of DHT – it’s a necessary hormone in both males and females.
However, testosterone isn’t the only hormone impacted by a healthy gut. The many flora that live in the gut – including E. coli, B. subtilis, and L. reuteri – can induce various hormonal shifts. For example, L. reuteri has been shown to upregulate oxytocin while B. subtilis has been shown to regulate the production of Somatostatin, a growth hormone-inhibiting hormone (11, 12).
With an abundance of healthy gut bacteria, you can ensure your hormones are functioning at their best. This will have positive impacts on hair growth and other such functions (13).
The 5 Best Probiotic Foods to Add to Your Diet
While a probiotic supplement can be taken to boost your intake of ‘good’ bacteria, it’s also important to incorporate probiotic foods into your diet. Fortunately, this is much easier than you’d think as there is a wide variety of such foods to choose from. Let’s take a look at the top five.
Perhaps the most well-known option on this list, yogurt is a food that’s commonly eaten, albeit in different ways, throughout the world. It can be added to smoothies, soups, and dips, or enjoyed on its own with a variety of toppings.
And while the versatility of yogurt has made it so popular, its probiotic content has made it a favorite in the health community (14).
Yogurt contains ‘good’ bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Streptococcus just to name the two most common. These bacteria produce lactic acid, which is then able to regulate metabolism and promote digestion (15).
Kefir is a fermented milk drink with a thinner consistency and tarter taste than yogurt. It’s also one of the foods with the highest levels of probiotics and the greatest variety of bacteria types. This makes it ‘better’ than yogurt in terms of promoting gut health.
Dairy products such as yogurt and kefir aren’t the only foods to contain high probiotic content. Take tempeh, for example.
Tempeh is a soy product which has been cultured and fermented until the soybeans are naturally bound into a cake. It can then be cut into pieces and fried, baked, or sauteed to your liking.
Soybean tempeh has been shown to induce the growth of both Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus (18). One study, performed on rats in 2015, even showed it to increase IgA protein secretion which is an antibody that plays a critical role in immune function (19).
Kombucha is a fermented black or green tea drink which has gained popularity in recent years. And while it may not be the miracle cure as many people claim, it does contain some beneficial components that contribute to gut health.
As with the other foods on this list, kombucha contains ‘good’ bacteria including Acetobacter and Gluconobacter (20). Aside from bacteria, it also contains components such as polyphenols and acetic acid. These contribute to detoxification, pH control, and ‘bad’ microbial growth control (20).
5. Cultured Vegetables
Kimchi and sauerkraut are ethnic foods that are loved (or hated) due to their strong flavors and somewhat sour taste. But they’re both more than just cuisine.
While not necessarily high in probiotics themselves, these two foods contain high levels of organic acids. This means they contribute to the growth of good bacteria within the gut (21).
The fact is that even if you eat some of the foods mentioned above, your gut may still struggle to retain the ‘good’ bacteria. With foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut, you can promote probiotic retention and even stimulate the production of more probiotics throughout the GI tract.
Prebiotics vs Probiotics: Why You Need Both
Probiotics are certainly given the attention they deserve on health websites, in research journals, and even on television and radio talk shows. But what about prebiotics?
Unfortunately, prebiotics are an often overlooked source for bacteria regulation and gut health.
In short, prebiotics are food ingredients that cannot be digested by the human GI tract. They can, however, be digested by probiotics. In essence, prebiotics are a food source for probiotics.
Prebiotics provide probiotics with compounds that they need to multiply. This means that prebiotics are used by probiotics, and the human body as a result, to increase the number of ‘good’ bacteria found in the gut.
And most interestingly, probiotics ‘digest’ prebiotics in the same way that probiotics are often produced themselves — via fermentation.
What all of this means is that you must eat a healthy balance of probiotics and prebiotics to maintain a healthy gut.
So, what foods are prebiotics? Essentially anything that cannot be digested by the upper portion of the GI tract. These include (22):
- Tree nuts
And similar to probiotics, prebiotic supplements also exist.
Other Steps to Improve Gut Health and Increases Odds of Hair Growth
The addition of probiotics and prebiotics to your diet contribute significantly to gut health and microbiota balance. But there are other steps you can take to maintain a healthy balance.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are in a wide range of foods including soft drinks, chewing gum and mints, candy, condiments, and even in some yogurts. They have been shown time and again to have negative effects on health, but they also contribute to poor gut health.
Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose have been shown to throw the gut microbiota out of balance (23). This can create a larger number of ‘bad’ bacteria, which can then trigger inflammation throughout the body.
The only way to ensure this does not occur is to avoid artificial sweeteners. This is easy to do if you know what to look for. So when reading food labels, be wary of foods that contain any of these ingredients (24):
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
- Steviol glycosides
- Luo Han Guo fruit extracts
You’ll also want to avoid low-calorie sugar substitutes including Splenda, Truvia, and Stevia.
Treat Your Stress
While stress may seem far from important in terms of gut health, it actually plays a major role.
Stress is often a response to physical or mental tension and if it persists too long, it can cause negative impacts on your overall health. It can even contribute to hair loss by reducing oxygen intake and increase tension on the scalp.
But what about its effects on gut health?
A variety of hormones are released when stress occurs. One hormone is epinephrine, which has been shown to contribute to the proliferation of ‘bad’ bacteria (25). This can then increase inflammation throughout the body.
To combat stress, you must treat it at the source.
Improve Your Sleep Quality
Similar to stress, poor sleep quality can increase levels of the stress hormone epinephrine and contribute to the spread of ‘bad’ bacteria throughout the gut.
By improving your sleep quality, you decrease both physical and mental stress levels which will then help to lower inflammation.
So, what steps can you take to improve sleep quality?
- Turn off electronics at least one hour before bed.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and other stimulants.
- Establish a calming bedtime routine.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
Over time these steps will contribute to a fuller night’s rest.
While things are not always so black and white, there’s one sure thing: a poorly functioning gut will lead to a poorly functioning body. This can have far-reaching impacts and it may even contribute to bad health and hair loss.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that a healthy and balanced gut will solve all of your hair loss problems. But it can play a significant role in decreasing inflammation and creating a healthier scalp environment in which hair can grow.
Plus, you’ll feel a lot better once you’re eating the foods that your body craves and providing your gut biome with the balance is so critically needs.
This is why I strongly advocate that readers change their diets to a healthier, more varied one. The inclusion of probiotics and prebiotics are just one step, but alkalization is another to consider.