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Using Zinc to Fight Hair Loss

It’s cheap and easy to find, so why not try zinc for your hair loss? It can’t hurt, right?

Using this kind of approach to treat your hair loss is a little like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it will stick -- not necessarily a good tactic when it comes to medical treatment. You could be wasting your time, your money, and putting yourself at risk without doing a bit of research first.

When you’re losing your hair, you don’t have time to try out every supplement that might be effective. We know, with each passing hour, you feel like you’ve lost another hair. With each passing week, you worry you’re getting that much closer to doing the balding man shave-off. You need to know that what you’re spending your money on is worthwhile. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees, but doing a bit of research on the front-end could save you some serious stress down the road.

We’ll get into the details below, but if you’ve only got a few minutes to spare, here’s what you need to know about zinc and hair loss:

  • Zinc is an essential mineral found in many food sources. Animal proteins are a particularly good source of zinc.
  • Extreme zinc deficiency can cause hair loss.
  • Zinc levels in the blood and hair are lower in men experiencing androgenetic alopecia, also known as male pattern baldness.
  • It’s believed zinc acts as a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, blocking the creation of DHT, known for contributing to prostate enlargement and pattern baldness. Propecia, a drug prescribed to treat such hair loss, is also a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor.
  • There is no hard proof that zinc can aid in slowing or reversing balding.
  • The risks associated with taking zinc supplementation are many, but typically reserved for those taking very high amounts of the mineral.

What is Zinc?

Zinc is an essential mineral -- not only does your body need it, but it doesn’t store it. It’s found naturally occurring in some foods, added to some that have been "enriched", and in supplements.

It is needed for proper immune function (keeping you healthy), wound healing, cell division and growth, physical growth and development, and even your senses of smell and taste. Because your body doesn’t keep a stockpile of zinc, a steady supply is needed for it to aid in all of these important functions.

Animal proteins are responsible for providing Americans with most of their zinc, according to the National Institutes of Health. And while zinc is present in plant foods, so are phytates, antioxidant compounds that bind with the zinc and prevent absorption. For this reason, plant sources of zinc, including whole grains, legumes, and nuts, are not a great source of the mineral. Yes, hipsters, this means vegetarians are at a higher risk of zinc deficiency.

Zinc Deficiency: Signs and Symptoms

Hair loss can be a sign of zinc deficiency, though other symptoms of deficiency would have to be present for your doctor to make that call.

What we know about zinc deficiency largely comes from the study of people with a genetic disorder called acrodermatitis enteropathica. People with this condition suffer from severe zinc deficiency and prior to scientists discovering the cause, they typically died. It is highly unlikely that a lack of dietary zinc could lead to this level of severe deficiency. More likely is moderate or marginal zinc deficiency, with less dramatic (but still serious) effects.

Symptoms of mild/moderate zinc deficiency:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Delayed growth
  • Poor immune health

Symptoms of severe zinc deficiency:

  • Hair loss
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Delayed sexual maturation
  • Night blindness
  • Skin lesions

Who’s at risk?

Some people are more at risk of zinc deficiency than others. They include: premature infants, and people receiving IV nutrition, those that are malnourished, suffering from severe and chronic diarrhea, or diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, or liver disease. Alcoholics, the elderly, and strict vegetarians are also at an increased risk of zinc deficiency.

Zinc Supplementation and Your Health

Zinc serves several roles within the human body -- that is well known and widely accepted. However, like most vitamins and minerals, the scientific evidence that there are health benefits to supplementing with zinc is underwhelming.

The common cold. More than likely, you’ve seen zinc lozenges formulated for fighting the common cold. Several studies have indicated zinc lozenges to fight both the symptoms and duration of the common cold when taken early in the illness, but there are just as many studies that have concluded otherwise. The conclusion of a 2000 meta-analysis of research found that evidence for the effectiveness of zinc in cold treatment, "still lacking".

Macular degeneration. Age-related macular degeneration is a leading cause of blindness in elderly Americans. Scientists hypothesize zinc may be related to AMD, largely because zinc is found in the retina affected by AMD and zinc concentration in the retina declines with age. However, like research concerning zinc and the common cold, evidence is mixed regarding the effectiveness of the mineral in the treatment of macular degeneration.

Most evidence of the health effects of zinc are related to the study of zinc deficiency.

Diabetes. Diabetics may be more prone to zinc deficiency, largely because frequent urination common in diabetics flushes zinc from the body. For that reason, diabetics should make sure to get the recommended daily amount of zinc in their diet, but maybe not exceed it -- some evidence indicates that too much zinc can negatively affect blood sugar control.

HIV/AIDS. We know zinc is crucial in immune health, and because the HIV virus lays waste to the immune system, there is some evidence that zinc can help. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, one study found zinc supplementation reduced infections in AIDS patients. However, because the HIV virus also needs zinc to survive, supplementation could also help the disease progress.

Zinc and Your Hair: The Evidence

It’s believed zinc acts as a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor (5-ARI). This means it inhibits the transformation of testosterone into DHT, or dihydrotestosterone, a more potent androgen associated with enlarged prostate and hair loss. Prescription drugs like finasteride (Propecia) also act as 5-ARIs. A 1988 study of zinc sulphate classified the mineral as a "potent inhibitor of 5-alpha reductase activity."

Many studies have looked at the effects of zinc on hair loss, though most have focused solely on alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease. Most men coping with hair loss have androgenetic alopecia, or pattern hair loss. While these two forms of hair loss may have different causes, they also have things in common, making the research on alopecia areata potentially useful for men with pattern baldness, too.

  • Zinc supplementation may be the catalyst to slowed or reversed hair loss in hypothyroidism, according to a case study published in the International Journal of Trichology. Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, is a widely known cause of hair loss. Researchers in this 2013 case study found that the hair loss of a hypothyroidic woman was only improved when zinc was added to her treatment regimen.
  • Zinc levels in the blood are lower in patients with various forms of hair loss, according to research published in the Annals of Dermatology. Though zinc levels were lower in all hair loss patients, they were only "significantly" different in those with alopecia areata and telogen effluvium, not androgenetic alopecia. However, another study, published in 2016, confirmed blood zinc levels to be lower in men with androgenetic alopecia with “statistical significance”.
  • A few studies focusing specifically on alopecia areata saw improvements with zinc supplementation. In the Annals of Dermatology, researchers wrote, "Zinc supplementation needs to be given to alopecia areata patients who have a low serum zinc level."

As you can see, the evidence is mixed and there is no concrete proof that zinc supplementation can unequivocally aid in slowing or reversing pattern hair loss. However, in the scientific world, there is an extremely heavy burden of proof -- you’d be hard pressed to find a study that unequivocally proves anything.

Because zinc has shown promise in aiding certain types of hair loss, because there is evidence that both blood and hair zinc levels are lower in men with pattern hair loss, and because zinc is known to act as a 5-ARI, it’s a fairly widely used non-prescription approach to hair loss. Even with mixed results.

Safety, Side Effects, and Precautions

The recommended daily allowance of zinc for adult men is 11 milligrams per day. With a diet rich in protein, most men shouldn’t have trouble reaching this level. However, those with known deficiency or at risk of known deficiency, can supplement with zinc.

The "tolerable upper intake level" for adult men is 40 mg of zinc daily. If you exceed this amount, and exceed it over the long-term, you could see adverse side effects. Acute, or short-term, side effects of zinc toxicity include: nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, diarrhea, headaches, and abdominal distress. Chronic zinc toxicity -- which involves taking high levels of zinc over extended periods of time -- can result in copper deficiency, reduced immune health, and reduced levels of high-density lipoproteins, or “good” cholesterol.

Zinc supplements can also interact with some prescription drugs, leading to negative outcomes. These include antibiotics, penicillamine (used to treat rheumatoid arthritis), and diuretics, among others.

As always, it’s wise to chat with a medical professional before beginning any supplement regimen, particularly if you’re taking prescription drugs.

The Bottomline

There is no significant proof that zinc supplementation can aid in slowing or reversing male pattern hair loss. However, there is some evidence that it may aid in certain types of hair loss, including alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease. It’s believed zinc acts as a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, like Propecia (finasteride), commonly prescribed for hair loss.

Because the risks of taking zinc supplements are low, you may want to discuss a supplement regimen with your physician. You’ll want to ask about any potential drug interactions, including whether it can or should be taken with other 5-ARIs.

This article was reviewed by Brendan Levy, MD.

References:

https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10801968
http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/zinc
https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002416.htm
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3207614
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3746228/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3870206/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2861201/
https://www.omicsonline.org/oral-zinc-sulphate-in-treatment-of-alopecia-areata-double-blind-cross-over-study-2155-9554.1000150.pdf
http://article.sciencepublishinggroup.com/pdf/10.11648.j.ajcem.20160405.13.pdf
https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/hair-restoration-in-androgenetic-alopecia-looking-beyond-minoxidil-finasteride-and-hair-transplantation-jctt1000105.php?aid=68395