The ketogenic diet has been gaining popularity in recent years. And with research linking its benefits to everything from weight loss to seizure reduction, how could it not? If you aren’t familiar, the keto diet is essentially a diet high in fat, with moderate amounts of protein and very low levels of carbohydrates. While variations of the diet have popped up, the guidelines for a Standard Ketogenic Diet are broken down to eating a diet of 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrates. Compared to a typical diet, keto switches out the carbohydrates your body is used to using as its main source of fuel, making fat your new MVP of energy. This coerces your body to shift into a metabolic state called ketosis, which is basically your body burning fat for energy.
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Is hair loss a side effect of the keto diet?
While solid research on the topic is hard to come by, the increasing number of hair shedding complaints from the keto-loving community has experts speculating where the connections may be. One possible reason has to do with the hair growth cycle’s response to stress—and not only stress as in, I just missed my train. Even the work it takes to digest your food is technically a stress on the body; so in that context, it’s easy to see how your body performing an overhaul on how it creates energy may bring some stress to the table. This stress can increase our stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to increased hair shedding. (See how ashwaghanda can help with this!) We commonly forget that hair follicles are all tiny organs that respond to stress just as other organs do: by reprioritizing your resources. So if your body has decided it needs to pay more attention to this new job of burning fat, it may shift hair growth farther down on its to-do list.
Do all low carb diets cause hair loss?
The answer to this question may refer to another stress: the quick weight loss that low carb dieters experience. When weight loss occurs rapidly, this big change can be hard on the body. As your body storing extra fat can be heavily associated with the decreased insulin sensitivity that can come from a high-carbohydrate diet, the sudden switch to a low carb diet (even one dropping to 50-100 net carbs per day) and the weight loss that results may be enough to trigger some stress-related hair loss.
The protein debate
With the keto diet’s emphasis on fat, it has also been debated that protein deficiency may be partially to blame for the hair loss complaints of keto dieters. Thick, healthy hair relies heavily on your quality of keratin protein, so protein is key for optimal hair growth. However, if you’re sticking to the 20% protein content of your keto diet as recommended, what’s more likely to blame is an overall calorie deficit. To play it safe, talk to your doctor about your new diet plan to ensure you’re hitting a healthy calorie goal.
Nutrient levels and hair loss
Another reason why hair loss might occur for one keto dieter but not another may have to do with how their nutrient levels of important vitamins and minerals were doing before their diet change. For example, research shows that ketogenic diets may increase the body’s need for biotin, a B vitamin with deficiency symptoms including hair loss. Theoretically, if your levels of biotin were in a precarious place before keto, the initiation of this metabolic change on the body is only going to worsen those levels, which may contribute to unwanted side effects such as hair loss.
Preventing hair loss on keto
One bit of advice recommended by medical literature is to give your body time to adjust to the metabolic changes that come with a ketogenic diet. You can do this by gradually increasing the “fat to other foods” ratio of your meals. For example: On your first day of keto, keep the ratio of fat to other-type foods at 1:1. Then, after some time, gradually increase this difference to 2:1, then 3:1, until finally graduating to 4:1. Theoretically, this allows your body time to adjust to your new high fat diet. Think of it as learning to walk before you run. Taking this slower approach to keto may also help avoid potential stress caused by rapid weight loss—as well as the risk for stress-related hair loss.
When to see a doctor
If you’re experiencing hair loss or thinning that’s out of the ordinary for you, it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor. While hair shedding may be a result of the diet change, it’s always a smart idea to have a professional make sure nothing else is behind the symptoms. They’ll also help you take the right, targeted steps to treat your hair issues.
Supplementing to prevent hair loss
Another strategy to prevent hair loss is by supplementing. This gives the body enough of what it needs to get through your diet transition and make up for any key nutrients you may be lacking. A high quality multivitamin is a great place to start, while a hair-focused supplement may be even better.
“When it comes to supplementation, a few of the important players include biotin — which helps the body break down fats, proteins, and carbs alike — and selenium. (Studies have shown that 50% of those put on a therapeutic ketogenic diet suffer from a selenium deficiency.) Selenium plays a role in a number of functions in the body, including antioxidant defense and the formation of thyroid hormone, both of which are important functions to ensure the hair follicle is given the green light to stay in its active growth phase. Selenium is a building block for multiple proteins which have to do with some very important reactions in the body. Research has connected selenium deficiency in body hair to hair loss, alopecia, and pseudo albinism.
The good news? Hair loss caused by selenium deficiency seems to repair when selenium is supplemented. But the big lesson here is you may be able to put yourself ahead of these sneaky deficiencies by supplementing first. Both biotin and selenium can be found in Nutrafol’s Core Solutions, which spells good news for anyone looking to try a keto diet but worried about the risk of hair loss.
By Dr. Kali Olsen