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If you or a loved one has diabetes, you may be concerned about what symptoms to expect. Since diabetes affects so many parts of the body, it can cause a wide range of symptoms if left untreated, including hair loss. Read on to learn why diabetes can cause hair loss and how you can treat and address it.
Can diabetes cause hair loss?
Diabetes impacts many of your body’s processes—including hair growth. Diabetes can cause hair loss due to several causes or consequences of the disease, like elevated blood sugar, stress, a condition called alopecia areata, and possibly nutritional deficiencies.
Hair loss can be distressing, especially if you’re unsure what’s causing it or how to treat it. But in addition to cosmetic concerns you may have, hair loss can be an early warning sign of diabetes (Miranda, 2016). Keeping an eye on your hair health is a good way to catch and manage diabetes early on, especially if you have a family history or a lifestyle that puts you at risk of diabetes.
The connection between diabetes and hair loss
Diabetes (both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes) can put you at risk for uncontrolled blood sugar levels, stress, or other autoimmune conditions that can affect hair growth.
Hair thinning from diabetes happens when the disease interrupts the cycle of hair growth and regrowth, which can happen for a few reasons:
High blood sugar & reduced circulation
Blood sugar plays a starring role in your body’s functions by serving as its primary energy source. However, when blood sugar levels get too high, problems can arise in nearly all of your body systems—including blood circulation.
This is partly due to the damage that high blood sugar (also known as hyperglycemia or high blood glucose) can have on your blood vessels, which supply blood and nutrients to your entire body. When tiny blood vessels called capillaries become damaged by high blood sugar levels, the tissues that those capillaries nourish—including those in your scalp—start to malfunction (Sapra, 2021).
What does this mean for hair loss? The hair growth cycle—hair growth, loss, and replacement—depends partly on healthy blood flow to your scalp. When this is compromised (like with diabetes), your scalp can’t continue to grow and replace hair like it normally would (Murphrey, 2021).
Ongoing and intense stress is a well-known cause of hair loss—and managing a chronic condition like diabetes can certainly cause a lot of stress (Al Aboud, 2021).
Stress also causes your body to go into fight-or-flight mode, releasing chemicals like cortisol into your bloodstream. Cortisol does many things, one of which is boosting sugar levels in your blood. This is important for increasing your energy to, say, run from a bear. If stress is ongoing, though, this can result in continued high levels of blood sugar, a major factor in diabetes that also contributes to hair loss.
If you have diabetes, you might have an increased risk of having other autoimmune conditions (MacLean, 2013; Nederstigt, 2019). Some of these, like alopecia areata and thyroid disease, can cause hair loss.
Alopecia areata is a condition where your immune system attacks the hair follicles, which can cause patchy or total hair loss on the scalp or other parts of the body. Fortunately, as many as 50% of patients recover their hair within a year. Others may not regrow their hair or may experience hair loss periodically throughout their lives (Darwin, 2018). There’s a lot we don’t know about this condition, but the amount of hair loss early on seems to indicate how well the hair will regrow later on (MacLean, 2013).
A lack of certain essential nutrients like zinc, iron, protein, and niacin can cause hair loss, and could cause hair loss in a person with diabetes if challenges with diet were a partial cause of their diabetes (Guo, 2017).
However, these deficiencies are rare (except for iron deficiency). They would likely come with more obvious medical symptoms besides hair loss, like diarrhea and dementia in the case of niacin deficiency or poor wound healing in the case of zinc deficiency (Guo, 2017).
A word of caution about nutritional supplements to deal with hair loss: There’s very little evidence that supplements can help with hair loss if you don’t have an actual deficiency. In fact, taking too much of certain nutrients (like selenium, vitamin A, and vitamin E) has been linked to hair loss (Guo, 2017). Plus, diabetes can damage your kidneys, which help process supplements. Excessive supplements may not be a great idea if your kidney function is poor.
What are the most common side effects of metformin?
Does metformin cause hair loss?
Some people may have heard that metformin, a common diabetes drug, causes hair loss, but there isn’t compelling evidence to suggest this.
Treating for diabetes hair loss
Fortunately, hair loss from diabetes may be reversible or treatable for some people, depending on how advanced your diabetes is and what is causing your hair loss. There are several things you can try that directly address hair loss or prevent damage to the nerves and blood vessels that impact hair follicles (Aring, 2005; Hu, 2001):
- Get blood sugar and diabetes under control—This is the first step for managing your diabetes and slowing down related hair loss. Communicate well with your healthcare provider about your symptoms, take any medication as prescribed, and make lifestyle improvements to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range.
- Try hair loss treatment—Several topical treatments can slow hair loss, including finasteride (Propecia; see Important Safety Information) or minoxidil.
- Stick to a healthy diet—Eating a balanced diet rich in leafy vegetables, lean meats, fish, beans, whole grains, and eggs can help ensure you have plenty of vital nutrients that healthy hair needs. Plus, it helps your body keep blood sugar under control. Remember, nutritional supplements are only helpful if you have an actual deficiency (and can even worsen hair loss if you take them without a deficiency) so consult your healthcare provider before taking them.
- Manage stress—Reducing and dealing with the stresses of life and of having diabetes can both improve hair loss as well as your overall health and wellness. There are many strategies to manage stress, including therapy (like cognitive behavioral therapy), mindfulness meditation, reducing work and home stress, and medication (if appropriate).
- Exercise regularly—Getting routine exercise can help you manage stress and improve blood sugar control and boost circulation, all of which can improve hair health and regrowth.
Why is my hair falling out? How can I stop my hair loss?
Thinning hair can feel like an unfair burden on top of diabetes, but fortunately, you can help reduce it by taking the same steps you would already take to keep your diabetes under control. It’s easier to slow hair loss than to reverse it, so if you have diabetes, talk to your healthcare provider about what steps are right for you to take to keep your hair looking and feeling healthy. If appropriate, medications can help.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
- Al Aboud, A. M. & Zito, P. M. (2021). Alopecia. StatPearls. Retrieved on April 4, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538178/
- Aring, A. M., Jones, D. E., & Falko, J. M. (2005). Evaluation and prevention of diabetic neuropathy. American Family Physician, 71(11):2123-8. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2005/0601/p2123.html
- Darwin, E., Hirt, P. A., Fertig, R., et al. (2018). Alopecia areata: Review of epidemiology, clinical features, pathogenesis, and new treatment options. International Journal of Trichology, 10(2), 51–60. doi:10.4103/ijt.ijt_99_17. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5939003/
- Guo, E. L. & Katta, R. (2017). Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatology practical & conceptual, 7(1), 1–10. doi:10.5826/dpc.0701a01. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315033/
- Hu, F. B., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J., et. al. (2001). Diet, lifestyle, and the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus in women. New England Journal of Medicine, 345(11):790-7. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa010492. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11556298/
- MacLean, K. J. & Tidman, M. J. (2013). Alopecia areata: More than skin deep. The Practitioner, 257(1764), 29–32. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24383154
- Miranda, J. J., Taype-Rondan, A., Tapia, J.C., et al. (2016). Hair follicle characteristics as early marker of Type 2 Diabetes. Medical Hypotheses, 95: 39-44. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2016.08.009. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27692164/
- Murphrey, M. B., Agarwal, S., & Zito, P. M. (2021). Anatomy, hair. StatPearls. Retrieved on April 4, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513312/
- Nederstigt, C., Uitbeijerse, B. S., Janssen, L. G. M., et al. (2019). Associated auto-immune disease in type 1 diabetes patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Endocrinology, 180(2):135-144. doi: 10.1530/EJE-18-0515. Retrieved from https://eje.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/eje/180/2/EJE-18-0515.xml
- Sapra, A. & Bhandari, P. (2021). Diabetes mellitus. StatPearls. Retrieved on April 4, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551501/