About 10 percent of people on low carb and ketogenic diets report experiencing hair loss, typically starting 3-6 months after adopting the low-carb eating style. So if you’ve noticed your hair has been thinning or shedding since embarking on a ketogenic diet, don’t act too hastily and jump off the Keto bandwagon just yet! Just as there are several well-researched explanations for this potential side-effect of ketosis, there are just as many possible solutions and easy fixes to help you regain your locks and improve the health of your hair in the process! Before diving into one of the most common causes of hair loss on a ketogenic diet, you should understand some of the science behind hair growth.
The Science of Hair Growth
Human hair follicles exist in two states—they begin their life in the anagen, or growth, phase, in which they grow as much as 1/2 inch per month for approximately 2 years, and then shift into the telogen, or resting, phase of the hair cycle which lasts for about 3 to 4 months. Following this cycle, old hairs will fall out to make room for new hairs. Under normal circumstances, approximately 10 percent of our hair goes into a resting, or dormant, phase, while the remaining 90 percent stays in the growing phase. So, whether you are aware of it or not, for most of your life you are always in the process of both growing and losing hair!
The Most Common Cause of Hair Loss on Keto
Telogen effluvium is a condition resulting in a shift of a much greater percentage of hairs into the resting phase of the hair cycle, and is the most common cause of hair loss – this condition is primarily associated with the physical and psychological stress of dieting and/or sudden weight loss. Usually, an average of 100 hairs are lost each day, but this number becomes significantly higher in Telogen effluvium, with up to 70 percent of scalp hairs being shed in large numbers within a couple of months 1. Some believe that the ‘stress’ of ketosis, the mechanism by which fat is burned for energy, causes hair loss by disrupting the growth cycle, sending hairs from the anagen to telogen phase before their time. It is typically in the first 3-6 months after starting the Keto Diet that an increase in ‘shedding’ is more noticeable, especially when hair is being brushed or washed.
Additional stressors known to result in this shift, or telogen effluvium, include:
- Physical stress associated with severe illness
- Hormonal disorders such as hyper-and hypothyroidism
- Other forms of emotional and psychological stress can also trigger hair loss.
The good news is that, in most cases of telogen effluvium, the hair loss is reversible when the underlying condition is corrected – usually occurring within a few months. In other words, in the case of weight loss or major dietary change, your body might be in a state of shock at first, but once it adapts to your new diet and once the rate of weight loss stabilizes, the normal cycle of hair growth will reestablish itself. 👑
The Impact of Diet & Nutrition on Hair Loss
If you are on a Keto Diet and are experiencing hair loss or thinning of the hair, it might not be the diet itself, but could likely be due to some common nutritional shortfalls or deficiencies. Many on the ketogenic diet (and in general) don’t realize how significantly diet affects hair health and hair growth. Your hair relies on a nutrient-rich diet comprised of foods that promote healthy hair growth. This is why it’s essential to make healthy dietary and lifestyle changes and use foods (not just supplements) as your primary strategy to improve your health and your success on the Keto Diet.
Common Nutritional Pitfalls on a Ketogenic Diet
The following are some of the most common nutritional pitfalls that should be avoided in order to help minimize the keto hair loss issue. I’ve also listed some easy solutions for overcoming these pitfalls:
Not Enough Calories
The stress from a sudden—and significant—reduction in calorie intake can ‘shock’ your hair, causing more follicles than normal to prematurely enter the telogen phase. This is likely the result of an insufficient calorie, or energy, source to support the growth phase. Many people new to Keto—intentionally or unintentionally—cut out too many calories in their efforts to drastically reduce carb intake, consuming far fewer calories than the body needs, and putting undue stress on the body. Once the stress has passed, the growth phase starts again and new hairs push out the old. 2 3
Solution: After the first week on the Keto Diet (during which you’ll likely experience a disproportionately large amount of water loss), weight loss can be unpredictable. Everyone’s body is different, which means the weight loss rate for each person is different as well. After the first couple of weeks on a ketogenic diet, a safe, average loss is around 1-2 pounds per week, as your body switches from burning carbs to burning fat. If you are losing much more than this still after the first few weeks, try the following to get back on a healthier weight loss schedule:
- Use Keto/Macros Tracking Apps: Carb Manager, Crono-o-Meter, KetoDietTracker
- Add Healthy Oils into your Diet: Take advantage of fat’s calorie density to boost calorie intake by adding healthy oils—olive, avocado, grapeseed—to your food both during meal prep and at the dinner table. Just a tablespoon of these oils contains over 100 calories.
- Eat Foods with Healthy Fats: Eating avocado, olives, nuts, seeds—and their butters—is a great way to add calories from healthy fats to your diet. Whole-fat dairy products—i.e. cream and cheese—are additional keto-friendly, calorie-dense foods that can help get you through periods of lapsed hunger. Don’t be deterred by their undeserved, ‘bad for your heart’ image—a growing number of recent studies have shown that whole-fat dairy consumption can actually have a beneficial effect on heart health4. For those of you always on the go, here is a list of 5 great Keto snacks you can buy on the road.
Not Enough Protein
Although the standard Keto Diet calls for “moderate” amounts of protein, many beginners overestimate their ‘moderate’ protein intake and, in doing so, don’t consume enough – the common fear is that too much protein will “kick you out of ketosis”. However, many in the ‘Keto World’ say that they would much rather eat too much protein and forestall the ketogenic state, than eat too little and suffer the consequences from protein deficiency. Protein provides the building blocks that allow us to repair, replace, or grow bones, skin, muscles, and hair. When we do not eat enough protein, such as in the case of a crash diet or extreme calorie restriction, the rate of new hair growth is slowed and our body is forced to break down our muscles in order to provide amino acids for more life-sustaining body processes. Both collagen and keratin are the main components of hair and both of these compounds are composed of amino acids from protein. Our body also needs other key amino acids, such as cysteine, lysine, arginine and methionine to form hair5.
Solution: The typical recommended range for protein intake on a Keto Diet is 20-25% of your daily calorie intake. However, your protein needs are closely tied to your body fat percentage, so in order to get an accurate read on what YOUR body needs, it is helpful to know this number. Luckily, there are a number of scales available that offer an accurate and affordable way to measure your body fat percentage. Personally, I like the RENPHO Bluetooth Body Fat Scale which syncs with your fitness apps.
Amino Acid Deficiencies
One of the best ways to get the adequate protein that your hair needs is to eat a balanced diet of foods that are rich in amino acids—the building blocks of protein. To maximize your results, it makes sense to choose protein-rich foods containing the following amino acids that are crucial for hair health and hair growth:
Arginine: Helps improve blood flow and circulation, thereby increasing blood supply to hair follicles and stimulating hair growth. Arginine can be found in a number of different food sources, including turkey, pork loin, chicken, beef, fish, dairy, spirulina, coconut, walnuts, peanuts, and pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds.
Cysteine: Contributes to the protein formation process that helps to build hair strands through keratin, which contributes to healthy hair structure and growth. Cysteine also plays a key role in upholding the thickness and the texture of the hair. Sources of this amino acid include: beef. lamb, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, pistachios, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, chicken, turkey, pork, clams, tuna, mussels, salmon, shrimp, eggs, and Swiss, feta and parmesan cheese.
Lysine: Aids hair growth when combined with other amino acids, specifically arginine. Products with lysine claim to promote healthy hair growth through aiding hormone secretion and immune function. Foods high in lysine include beef, cheese, turkey, chicken, pork, tofu, fish and seafood, eggs, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, chia and flaxseeds, pistachios, cashews and almonds.
Methionine: Required for the production of keratin in the hair shaft and also boosts our body’s collagen production, which improves the strength of the hair shaft. Methionine-rich foods include Brazil nuts, beef, lamb, parmesan and other cheeses, turkey, chicken, pork, tuna and many other types of fish and seafood, eggs, and sesame seeds.
Special Mention: Collagen Is the most abundant protein in our body and is a long-chain amino acid composed of four individual amino acids—proline, glycine, arginine and hydroxyproline. Many us are already aware that collagen is good for our skin, but it also plays a major role in hair growth. Our body’s ability to produce collagen decreases around the age of 30, leading to a continuous decline in the collagen levels in the body. Some dietary sources of collagen include grass-fed bovine (beef) gelatin, bone broth, wild salmon, and egg whites with its attached shell membrane. Make sure to include a source of Vitamin C along with your collagen-rich food/meal in order to maximize its benefits in hair regeneration.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
A calorie and protein-deprived diet can also deplete the body of other nutrients important for hair growth and quality. Certain deficiencies of vitamins and minerals have been shown to play an important role in hair loss. The following are key vitamins and minerals involved in hair growth and their Keto-friendly food sources which can help you improve the health of your hair:
Vitamin A: A dietary deficiency of this vitamin may cause a decrease in the cycle speed of cell regeneration and synthesis6. Vitamin A helps with hair growth by maintaining healthy follicles. Because of its solubility in fats, Vitamin A is also responsible for moisturizing and protecting hair, giving it resistance from fragility. Foods rich in this vitamin include beef and lamb liver, salmon, tuna, carrots, spinach, lettuce, red bell peppers, and broccoli.
B-Vitamins—Biotin, Folate, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Pyridoxine, & Cobalim. An inadequate intake of B-vitamins during the process of fat adaptation, occurring in the beginning stages of the Keto Diet, could be a another reason why you might be—or could end up—experiencing hair loss.
- Biotin (B7) is needed to metabolize the amino acids that create keratin, a protein forming the main structural constituent of hair. A lack of biotin over a prolonged period can cause a decrease in protein synthesis, potentially leading to undernourished hair follicles and eventual hair loss7. Dietary sources of biotin include liver, salmon, beef, pork, egg yolk, cheese, sunflower seeds, almonds, cauliflower, mushrooms, and spinach.
- Folate (B9) is involved in red blood cell and hemoglobin production and their roles are to transport oxygen to tissues building hair. Folate is also responsible for stimulating the rebuilding of hair follicle cells. Sources of folate include kale, spinach, artichoke, turnip and collard greens, brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, and avocado.
- Niacin (B3) can improve blood flow and increase the delivery of nutrients to hair follicles, supporting hair growth. Foods rich in niacin include nutritional yeast, chicken, liver, tuna, turkey, salmon, sardines, and grass-fed beef.
- Pantothenic acid (B5) increases hair flexibility, strength, and shine and helps prevent hair loss and graying. Good sources of this vitamin are Shitaki mushrooms, salmon, avocado, chicken breast, beef, pork, sunflower seeds, eggs, and shellfish.
- Pyridoxine (B6) aids in the metabolizing of amino acids required for hair growth. Rich sources of this vitamin include turkey breast, beef, pork, pistachios, chicken breast, salmon, tuna, nutritional yeast, avocado, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds.
- Cobalamin (B12) promotes healthy hair growth by assisting in the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells, which feed hair follicles, and can be found in animal-based foods such as shellfish, liver, tuna, salmon, beef, swiss cheese, turkey, and eggs.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is essential to producing and maintaining healthy collagen levels within hair follicles. It’s also an effective antioxidant helping to reduce free radical and UV damage to follicle cells and collagen, thereby reducing hair loss and improving overall hair health. A severe deficiency of this vitamin can cause the hair to be susceptible to problematic splitting and breaking. You can find Vitamin C in many everyday food items such as dark green leafy vegetables, cauliflower, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins for humans, responsible for regulating inflammation, immunity, sex hormones, and numerous other key functions. It is also one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. The connection between hair health and this vitamin is still unclear, but the authors of a study on the role of Vitamin D in Telogen effluvium found that women with hair loss had much lower Vitamin D levels than did normal controls8. If you’re not sure about your Vitamin D level, an easy way to find out is with a blood test that can be performed with other routine tests. The test result will determine if you need supplemental therapy, above and beyond dietary sources, which include fatty fish, oysters, shrimp, beef liver, egg yolks, and fortified dairy and plant-milk products.
Iron: Iron is a trace mineral which functions primarily in the synthesis of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. The main role of hemoglobin is to transport oxygen from the lungs to body tissues to maintain basic life functions. Iron deficiency can lead to a condition called anemia and can lead to possible hair loss or increased hair shedding9. Anemia can be easily diagnosed with a blood test and is characterized by fatigue, weakness, and general poor health. It should be noted that anemia can be caused by more than just iron deficiency. There are two types of iron sources in the diet: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is absorbed in the body more easily. Heme iron sources include animal products such as red meats and poultry. Non-heme iron comes from mostly plant foods, such as leafy greens, tomatoes, tofu, mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp and flaxseeds, almonds, cashews, pine nuts and macadamia nuts. It is not absorbed as easily in the body as heme iron.You can enhance your body’s ability to absorb non-heme iron by consuming Vitamin C sources and heme iron sources in the same meal.
Zinc: Zinc is a trace mineral that functions in the maintenance of the oil-secreting glands that are attached to hair follicles. It also contributes to stronger hair structure and can improve the rate of hair growth. A recent study demonstrated a link between zinc deficiency and hair loss. Good sources of zinc include foods of animal origin, such as oysters, beef, chicken leg and thigh, pork, and cheese. Hemp and pumpkin seeds, tofu, cashews and pine nuts are all good plant sources of zinc, but these foods contain a compound that may interfere with its absorption.
Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral that serves as an essential nutrient in the body with many key functions. Magnesium helps prevent the clogging of hair follicles associated with the build up of calcium on the scalp which could lead to hair loss. Magnesium also plays an active role in supporting blood flow, helping to support optimal nutrient delivery to the hair follicles 10. Magnesium deficiency is common in most all populations, and is especially prevalent during the initial stages of a ketogenic diet because of the increased magnesium losses in the urine—along with other electrolytes. In addition, a magnesium deficiency is one of the main biochemical causes of hair loss associated with thyroid function. Without magnesium, many of the thyroid enzymes that make thyroid hormones simply could not function11. Magnesium-rich foods include cashew nuts, almonds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dark leafy greens, fatty fish, and dark chocolate.
Selenium: Selenium is a trace mineral (required in very small amounts) that aids in iodine metabolization and thyroid function, protecting hair follicles through its role as an antioxidant. A deficiency of selenium may inhibit the hair’s ability to grow, resulting in an overall thinning and shedding. However, selenium has a small therapeutic window and an excessive intake—mostly through over supplementation – can lead to a condition called selenosis, which, in its mild form, can result in hair loss. Selenium-rich foods include Brazil nuts, tuna, salmon, snapper, oysters, clams, mussels, lobster, beef, pork, chicken breast, tofu, shrimp and Shiitake mushrooms.
Whether you are on a ketogenic diet or not, stress (physical or emotional) is known to be one of the main causes of hair loss. Because of major dietary and eating style adjustments, along with metabolic changes occurring during ketosis, your body might experience a prolonged period of stress. If you’re new to the Keto Diet, keep in mind that your body might be going through a bit of shock due to the drastic dietary changes. This will likely wear off within a few months, and your hair growth will likely go back to normal after your dormant hair comes out of this phase. In general, it’s always best not to go too extreme on your calorie reduction, ensure that you eat an adequate amount of protein, and prioritize getting your micronutrients—including vitamins and minerals—from natural, whole foods, in addition to any supplements you are taking.
- Diagnosing and Treating Hair Loss: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2009/0815/p356.html
- Telogen Effluvium: A Review: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4606321/
- Telogen Effluvium – MDPI www.mdpi.com/2079-9284/3/2/13/pdf
- Dairy Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: Do We Really Need to Be Concerned?: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5867544/
- Nutritional factors and hair loss: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12190640
- Nutrition of women with hair loss problem during the period of menopause: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4828511/
- Serum Biotin Levels in Women Complaining of Hair Loss: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4989391/
- Is there a link between Vitamin D and female hair loss? https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/is-there-a-link-between-vitamin-d-and-female-hair-loss/
- Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315033/#b64-dp0701a01
- Nutrition of women with hair loss problem during the period of menopause: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4828511/
- The WOMED model of benign thyroid disease: Acquired magnesium deficiency due to physical and psychological stressors relates to dysfunction of oxidative phosphorylation: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214647414000282