Receding Hairline, Diet and Insulin: the Surprising Hair Loss Link

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A man suffering from hair loss with a receding hairline.Is “natural hair loss” really so natural as we age?

Maybe not always.

Genetics play a strong role in receding hairlines and male pattern baldness (MPB).

However, like with many things, genes aren’t the whole story.

In fact, emerging science suggests that diet plays a significant role and that insulin is a primary driver behind hair loss.

Additionally, there is even a link between early balding and cardiovascular disease.

This article takes a look at what connects these things, the causes of hair loss, and how we can potentially reverse them – naturally.

What Is a Receding Hairline and Male Pattern Baldness?

Picture of a man with a receding hairline - male pattern baldness.

The medical name ‘androgenic alopecia’ refers to the permanent loss of hair from the scalp.

A receding hairline is the progressive loss of hair men experience. This loss of hair initially occurs around the temple area, on both sides of the forehead.

The hair around this area begins to thin, and then gradually recedes. A bald spot may then develop on the top of the head, which eventually leads to a ‘horseshoe’ shaped head of hair.

In women, female pattern hair loss (FPHL) tends to progressively develop on the top of the head and the crown.

People have long hypothesized that genetics are behind hair loss, but as with many medical conditions, research hints that our lifestyle interacts with these genes.

The Role of DHT

The hormone DHT (dihydrotestosterone) plays a causative role in thinning hair, and it is a derivative of the male hormone testosterone (1, 2).

But a point often overlooked is the underlying factors which cause excess amounts of this hormone; we will look into this later in the article.

Age-related hair loss is much more common in men due to their naturally higher testosterone levels.

Key Point: Progressive hair loss—otherwise known as androgenic alopecia—involves a receding hairline in men and a thinning crown in women. Both genetics and lifestyle play a vital role in this progressive loss of hair.

The Link Between Diet and Hair Loss

Bald Man Cooking

There is a strong connection between nutrition and hair loss, in more ways than one.

The biochemical impact of our total diet plays the most significant role.

On the other hand, deficiency in essential nutrients may also cause or contribute to hair loss.

First, let’s look at some essential nutrients for a healthy head of hair.

Iron

Iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiency in the United States, and 9.6% of Americans are living with anemia (3).

Low ferritin levels as a result of iron deficiency often lead to hair loss (4, 5).

However, this is not the permanent kind of hair loss as seen in male pattern baldness or female pattern hair loss.

Therefore, it will present as a general thinning of the hair rather than a receding hairline.

Making beneficial dietary changes to increase iron intake will rectify the problem, and the hair will generally regrow.

If you feel you’re not consuming enough iron, then here are ten foods high in the mineral.

Zinc

Zinc is important for healthy hair growth and many other things.

Zinc deficiency, known as hypozincemia, is a common condition in many developing countries.

It is also a problem in the Western world, and approximately 12% of the United State’s population is at risk of zinc deficiency (6).

Zinc is an essential mineral that, among many other roles, plays a part in keeping our hair healthy.

Deficiency in this hormone has an adverse impact on keratin and leads to suppressed hair growth and brittle hair (7).

Fortunately, getting enough zinc is straightforward; here are ten great sources of dietary zinc.

Magnesium

Along with iron and zinc, magnesium is another nutrient that encourages healthy hair growth.

Similar to those other minerals, average magnesium intake is also a problem with over 60% of adults having a deficiency (8).

Magnesium is a truly essential nutrient that affects all cells in our body, and it is necessary for healthy hair growth (9).

If you want to increase your intake of dietary magnesium, here are some significant sources of the mineral.

Key Point: Nutrient deficiencies may be responsible for mild forms of hair loss. However, these nutrients will have little effect on a receding hairline and male pattern baldness.

Are There Foods That Prevent Hair loss?

Picture of a confused looking man.As shown above, mineral deficiencies may cause hair to thin and lead to light hair loss.

In this case, eating foods rich in the required minerals should have a positive effect.

However, male (and female) pattern baldness are hormonal issues for which there are no specific foods to stop the process.

In other words, all those “hair loss prevention” food lists you may have come across are unlikely to do anything.

Perhaps disappointingly, there is no single food or magical “smoothie plan” that can have this effect.

That being said, this doesn’t mean we can’t stop a receding hairline.

In some cases, it is certainly possible to at least slow hair loss.

Key Point: Foods can contribute to healthy hair, but there is no one food that reverses hormone-related hair loss.

Insulin Resistance: A Driver of Hair Loss?

Picture showing how the hormone insulin works.

The hormone insulin plays a critical role in regulating blood glucose levels, but at excessive levels (hyperinsulinemia) it can have a negative effect on various bodily systems.

There is also compelling evidence that insulin is a key driver of hair loss;

  • Men with alopecia before 30 years of age had “significantly higher insulin resistance” and greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes (10).
  • A population-based cohort study of 324 women was undertaken; those with markers of insulin resistance had “significantly increased” rates of alopecia (11).
  • A study among 245 Finnish men aged 63 years old showed that male pattern balding is typical for that age. However, it also showed that it associates with insulin-related problems such as hypertension and diabetes. Rates of diabetes in men with hair loss were almost double those of people with no hair loss (12).

Back To DHT

As stated earlier, current beliefs pin DHT as a primary culprit in male pattern baldness.

While the science on this is far from settled, it appears that DHT binds to androgen receptors in hair follicles.

As part of this process—and for some unknown reason—it activates genes responsible for follicular miniaturization (13).

However, we all produce DHT – so why do only some men suffer from a receding hairline?

  • Genes: some people don’t have the genetic predisposition to develop hair loss (14).
  • Volume of DHT: some people have a higher DHT production, and more of the hormone means more hair loss. DHT levels are “significantly higher” in bald men (15).

What Causes Higher DHT Levels?

The next logical question to ask is what causes these higher DHT levels?

From looking at the evidence, the answer appears to be the enzyme 5-alpha-reductase (5-AR), a compound that converts testosterone into DHT (16).

If there is more 5-AR present in the body, then more testosterone will convert into DHT and hair loss will increase.

But again, the majority of people (except some who are deficient) have this enzyme – so what causes some people to have higher levels than others?

For some people, it may just be their genes.

But for others, the answer is insulin resistance.

Key Point: Insulin resistance is associated with a more extensive receding hairline and hair loss. An enzyme called 5-AR is responsible for converting testosterone into DHT, which damages hair follicles.

High Insulin Levels, 5-AR and SHBG

SHBG is a sex hormone that plays a role in hair loss.There are two big factors at play regarding how insulin influences hair loss.

Firstly, let’s look at the relationship between 5-AR and insulin.

Studies show that enhanced 5-alpha-reductase activity in the body is associated with insulin resistance. In fact, the amount of 5-AR actually correlates with fasting insulin levels (17).

In other words, insulin increases the amount of circulating 5-AR, which causes a higher conversion of testosterone into DHT.

The net result is a faster-receding hairline and more hair loss.

There is another hormone involved which insulin also influences; sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG).

Like 5-AR, this compound plays a significant role in the progression of hair loss.

What is SHBG and How Does Insulin Affect It?

SHBG has the function of regulating sex hormones, and it binds to three major sex hormones; testosterone, DHT, and estrogen (18).

So, the key point here is that even if circulating DHT levels are high – SHBG binds them and reduces the total volume.

Put simply, higher levels of SHBG mean lower levels of free DHT and reduced hair loss.

However;

Studies show that elevated levels of insulin inhibit SHBG in both normal weight and obese men. This occurrence especially affects type 2 diabetics (19, 20).

Key Point: Excessive 5-AR promotes hair loss by increasing DHT levels, but SHBG reduces hair loss by binding DHT. Unfortunately, high insulin levels increase 5-AR and inhibit SHBG.

So, How Can We Reduce Insulin Levels?

Picture of a Low Carb Diet - Helpful For Fighting Hair Loss

Diet plays a substantial role, but so do other lifestyle factors such as getting adequate sleep and exercise.

The key to reducing circulating insulin is to bring blood glucose levels under control.

Here is a quick overview of some proven methods of doing this;

Diet

In the modern world, people are eating way too many refined carbohydrates and sugars.

Eating these hyper-processed foods spikes blood sugar levels and sends insulin surging.

To control insulin sensitivity, we need to avoid these kinds of foods;

  • Biscuits/Cookies
  • Bread
  • Cakes
  • Candy
  • Chocolate (85% or above dark chocolate is OK)
  • Donuts
  • Flour-based Foods
  • Fried Carbohydrate Foods (E.g., fries)
  • Fruit Juices
  • Gluten-Free Grain Flours
  • Pastries
  • Pies
  • Soda/Sweetened Beverages

Instead of these foods, emphasize a diet full of healthy whole foods and sufficient dietary fats such as;

  • Avocado
  • Cheese
  • Full-fat Dairy
  • Meat
  • Nuts
  • Oily Fish (Salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, anchovies)
  • Olives
  • Seeds

A ketogenic diet can be an excellent idea, and so can lower carb plans like the LCHF and Paleo diet.

The aim is a lower carb plan as diets lower in carbohydrate drastically reduce circulating insulin levels (21, 22).

Exercise

Exercise plays a significant role in insulin sensitivity too.

Notably, insulin levels in the blood fall during—and after—exercise (23, 24).

The first thing to remember is that you don’t need hours and hours at the gym to do sufficient exercise.

Personally, I do some resistance training three times per week for approximately 40 minutes each time.

Exercising a few times per week alongside lots of movement (try walking rather than using transportation) can make a big difference.

Sleep

Sleep is hugely important to insulin sensitivity and our overall health.

Far too many people concentrate on a healthy diet but neglect their sleep.

If you always find yourself staying up too late, then here are some motivators to get you to bed;

  • Just one night of poor sleep (4 hours) induces insulin resistance in healthy individuals (25).
  • Sleep loss impairs glucose metabolism, increases insulin levels, and adversely changes the levels of ‘hunger hormones’ ghrelin and leptin (26, 27, 28).

To put it another way, not getting adequate sleep is just as bad as eating unhealthy food.

Both diet and sleep are crucial.

Key Point: Diet plays a big role in maintaining healthy insulin levels, but so do exercise and sleep. Your whole lifestyle affects insulin sensitivity, so try to make time for adequate sleep and exercise.

Does Premature Hair Loss Increase the Risk of Cardiovascular Heart Disease?

There is a link between cardiovascular disease and premature balding.

Some studies suggest that a receding hairline and male pattern balding increase the risk of heart disease.

Statistical studies show that men with male pattern balding—especially if it started at a young age—have a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular problems.

The link here is probably strong enough not to be passed off as mere correlation;

  • A meta-analysis of 850 studies involving 36,990 participants found that vertex (top of head) baldness is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The data shows that the severity of baldness has links to higher risk levels (29).
  • A study of 100 participants displaying male pattern baldness between the ages of 25 and 40 was undertaken. Analysis of cardiovascular risk factors in these participants found statistically significant lower HDL and higher triglyceride levels. These changes are recognized cardiovascular risks, and they worsened with the severity of baldness (30).
  • Further studies again show there is a correlation between cardiovascular risk and progression of hair loss. This link is particularly strong when the hair loss occurs at an early age (31, 32).

Is This Link Real?

There is “proof” of a correlative (rather than causative) link between the extent of balding and heart disease.

However, this connection seems to make sense.

Firstly, studies suggest hair loss advances at a quicker pace due to high insulin levels.

We also know that higher insulin levels (and insulin resistance) are an independent cardiovascular risk factor (33, 34, 35).

The reason for this is that they cause inflammation, and correlate with low HDL and high triglyceride levels – both of which are risk factors for heart disease (36, 37).

Key Point: Does insulin drive both hair loss and cardiovascular disease? In some cases, the evidence suggests it may.

Final Thoughts

There are numerous possible causes of hair loss and genetic predisposition is a big one.

However, there is evidence that insulin plays an influential role in premature balding.

For those suffering from a receding hairline at an early age, it may be possible to slow it down.

The key to doing this might be to normalize insulin levels through a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Through doing this, we can promote natural hair growth through giving our body the optimal biological conditions.

Good nutrition and lifestyle is the key, and it sure beats expensive hair loss remedies and magic potions.

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