Some of my clients with IBS, also present with hair thinning and / or hair loss. This article will look at the link between hair loss and irritbale bowel syndrome
The gut / scalp connection
Our digestive tract is not just for digesting food, the gut is connected to lots of other body organs, especially our immune system.
There are key elements of digestion which might affect your scalp and hair health:
- Your need adequate stomach acid to absorb many of our nutrients essential for hair growth (e.g. protein and B12). Absorption may be impaired if your stomach acid is low, for example you’re on a PPI or have chronic stress.
- If you have high levels of inflammation in the gut it could be driving inflammation in other parts of the body, such as hair follicles.
- Hair loss is common among patients with IBD, but loss may be reduced in those taking certain medication. This shows that there is a link between digestion and hair loss.
Reasons for hair loss
However, if you’re experiencing hair loss your irritable bowel syndrome symptoms might not be to blame.
The most common type of hair loss, is called telogen effluvium, which leads to hair thinning. This is normally temporary and doesn’t lead to baldness.
If this is happening to you though, it can be very worrying to feel you’re losing more hair than normal.
You may start to notice patches with very sparse hair growth.
Your hair is constantly growing, and the skin and scalp need ongoing nutrients and blood flow to maintain this growth. Possible reasons for losing your hair could be:
- If you’re not eating a balanced diet you may be low in certain nutrients like iron, B vitamins or zinc.
- If your stomach acid is low you may not be absorbing nutrients properly (no matter how good your diet is).
- A very fast transit time (as in IBS-D, where diarrhoea is frequent) may miss the opportunity for nutrient absorption.
- Experiencing trauma or physical stress may divert energy away from hair growth. You may notice this 2-3 months after a stressful time in your life. If there is nothing obvious, it could have been an ‘internal’ stress which caused your body energy to deal with, even if you didn’t have an external event (such as an accident, bereavement or divorce).
- Medication, some anti-depressants, blood pressure medication or hormones (such as the contraceptive) may cause hair loss.
- Low functioning thyroid or hypothyroidism.
- Immune disorders, especially undiagnosed auto-immune conditions.
Trichologists like the team at Trichology UK can use specialist knowledge, testing and look at the type of hair loss, duration, and other relevant factors for scalp and hair health.
Then we can build you a detailed plan to support regrowth.
Can IBS cause hair loss?
If you’ve got any kind of disruption in your digestive system, there is potential for it to impact the rest of the body due to nutrient malabsorption, or inflammation. Inflammation is how the immune system tries to fix something that isn’t right (I’ve written about inflammation if you want an overview).
Inflammatory molecules called Lipopolysaccharides can be absorbed in the gut, and then travel around the body in your blood, increasing the risk of inflammation in other parts of the body.
Some growth hormones are made in the gut, and directly impact hair growth.
So if you’re concerned about hair shedding we want to ensure the gut is functioning as effectively as possible.
Diet to improve hair and scalp health
The most important thing you can focus on to improve hair loss is to eat a balanced diet to maximise chances of getting the nutrients to the scalp.
If you don’t eat meat have a look at this dedicated article to vegetarian nutrients for hair loss.
- Protein – include varied sources of protein (eggs, meat, fish, nuts, seeds, tofu, beans and pulses)
- B12 – found in animal products like meat, fish and dairy. Get your levels checked if you’re unsure, and definitely supplement if you’re vegan.
- Omega 3 – important for healthy skin, nails and hair, as well as managing inflammation. Oily fish is the best source, but vegan algae-based supplements are available. Flax seeds and hemp oil doesn’t provide sufficient omega 3 for most people.
- Iron – may be low if you’re very tired, have heavy menstrual blood loss, or other health conditions. Include red meat, eggs, green leafy vegetables. Changes to how you eat and your lifestyle can help you reduce risk of iron deficiency.
- Zinc – found in meat, nuts, brown rice, zinc is essential for the immune system as well as supporting healthy hair growth.
Gut health and hair growth
As an IBS nutritionist I’m working with my clients some of the key basic areas I will consider include:
Managing Stress – you’ve probably already noticed a link between your mood and digestive symptoms. When we are stressed we don’t digest food as well, which can increase bloating, gas and stomach pains.
Improving your stress levels, getting enough sleep and building time for fun into your life may support reduction in your symptoms. Stress management may also support better hair growth.
Supporting your gut bacteria – it’s important to feed the beneficial gut bacteria with fibre and a broad range of vegetables and fruits. The gut bacteria help reduce inflammation, improve nutrient absorption, and crowd out pathogens like viruses, parasites or ‘bad bacteria’
Probiotics – some studies in mice showed that certain probiotic strains improved their fur thickness and quality and whilst these don’t always translate to humans, sometimes probiotics may help address gut bacteria imbalances (sometimes called dysbiosis).
If you have a sensitive digestion and want to try probiotics, then start slowly because sometimes probiotics can make symptoms of IBS worse.
Increasing your stomach acid – chewing your food properly and sitting down to eat can make a big difference. You can help increase stomach acid with digestive bitters such as rocket, radicchio, or lemon juice, to stimulate your digestive juices.
Reducing stress levels and getting 8 hours of sleep will also help your digestion.
Reduce gut inflammation – when you are reacting to everything you eat that’s a sign your digestion needs some support. Try keeping a food diary to look for patterns in your symptoms and diet.
Hi I'm Anna Mapson, registered Nutritional Therapist.
I can help you to:
- understand your digestion better, so you recognise your triggers
- eat a well balanced diet, with tasty meals that are simple to prepare
- develop better digestion and more energy
Find more about my 3 month 1:1 Gut Reset programme
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