Can Addictions to Drugs and Alcohol Cause Hair Loss?




Last year, research presented at the annual conference of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons showed that specific lifestyle factors were predictors of increased hair loss in both men and women. The study’s lead author, plastic surgeon Bahman Guyuron, M.D., presented findings from a retrospective study done on 150 sets of twins. The findings showed that the twins had varying degrees of hair loss that might be attributed to certain lifestyle factors, one of which was alcohol abuse in women and cigarette smoking in both men and women.

All of this begets the question: Can substance abuse of any kind, such as that of cigarettes, alcohol, illegal drugs and even prescription drugs cause hair loss?

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How alcoholism and addiction affect hair loss

Jodi LoGerfo, New York City nurse-practitioner and hair loss specialist at Orentreich Medical Group, explains, “Any food or drink composed of sugar such as alcohol increases blood glucose levels. This is a normal metabolic process that causes the pancreas to release insulin into the blood to absorb the extra glucose. What you have to remember is that alcohol is purely glucose. And alcoholics are like anorexics because they hardly eat or drink anything else, not even water. Eventually the pancreas becomes overloaded and overworked trying to release enough insulin to absorb the excess glucose and then cells become resistant to it.” This condition is called “metabolic syndrome” or “insulin resistance” and is the name for the group of risk factors that occurs together and increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, says LoGerfo. “In addition, the liver damage from the long-term alcohol overload also leads to hepatitis C and a fatty liver, which both cause insulin resistance, too,” she adds.

When cells become insulin resistant, all that extra glucose spills out into the bloodstream, which in turn increases testosterone levels. “We know that once testosterone increases the DHT [dihydrotestosterone] in the hair follicles, especially in men, follicles shrink and stop growing, leading to hair thinning and hair loss in men called male pattern baldness.”

One male pattern hair loss study tested men with early signs of hair loss based on insulin resistance and associated risk factors, such as elevated lipids, abnormal glucose metabolism, high body mass index and elevated systolic blood pressure, and found that early onset hair loss was a marker of insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.

LoGerfo explains that most unhealthy addictive lifestyle behaviors, such as alcohol abuse, painkiller abuse, illegal drug abuse, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, poor nutrition and lack of exercise, are related to either cardiovascular disease or insulin resistance. “Even abusing pain killers, many of which contain acetaminophen, which is liver toxic when taken at higher doses than prescribed, results in the same insulin resistance.”

Study not complete enough to prove addiction causes hair loss

Healthier lifestyle behaviors obviously result in better health but not always better hair, because hair loss, especially in men, is mostly a product of one’s genetics. The twin research presented did show that there may be other factors independent of genetics that do affect hair loss, offers LoGerfo.

“While these mechanisms are all related, you still can’t make the generalization that alcoholism, addiction, or smoking causes hair loss, because you will see lots of very healthy people with hair loss and lots of alcoholics and smokers with great hair,” says LoGerfo. “The findings of the twin research are preliminary, and more studies need to be done. The twin research was ‘retrospective,’ meaning researchers asked study participants to look in the past, make an assumption and fill out a questionnaire. A ‘prospective’ study that follows twins throughout their lives to see what lifestyle factors or events trigger the androgenetic alopecia would be more helpful.”