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My Experiments With Diet, Hair Loss, And Veganism
When I was first diagnosed with pattern hair loss, I immediately bought some Rogaine and started low-level laser therapy. When those treatments failed to regrow any hair, I turned my attention to diet.
In no particular order, here’s a list of diets I’ve tried (and for how long):
- Standard American diet (20+ years)
- Vegetarianism (1+ years)
- Low carbohydrate paleo (4 months)
- Raw meat diet (3 months)
- Jack LaLanne diet (3+ months)
- Gerson Therapy (2 months)
- Low Nitrate (2 months)
- Low FODMAP (3 months)
- Low FODMAP paleo (3 months)
- Danny Roddy / Ray Peat (6 months)
- Moderate carbohydrate paleo (3+ years)
- Veganism (3 months)
- Gluten-free veganism (1 month)
This doesn’t include experimental supplements or eating habits – like calorie restriction (3 months) or intermittent fasting (1+ years). So after years of dieting, what’s my biggest takeaway?
Certain diets are no good for my hair. Of the worst offenders: a vegan diet (veganism).
Veganism might have its benefits for longevity and (some) cancer prevention. But when it comes to hair regrowth, my vegan experience was a disaster.
This article uncovers my pathway to veganism, my blood work, the diet’s impact on my hair, and new research unveiling the dangers of vegan diets for thyroid (and hair) health.
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The Road To Veganism Is Filled With Good Intentions
In college I took a few nutrition courses and realized what I’d been putting into my body for 20+ years (the Standard American diet) probably wasn’t helping my academics, athletics, or hair.
Then I read the book The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. The book uncovers the world’s longest living populations – aptly labeling where each lives a “Blue Zone”. Then the author analyzes what each zone has in common. According to the book, the secret to a long life is…
- …having a strong sense of community
- …moving naturally (lots of walking and yard work)
- …resting and napping often
- …eating low levels of meat
That last bullet point concerned me. I was devouring meat daily. At this point, I’d also been losing my hair for years.
If longevity is associated with low meat consumption, was meat also associated with hair loss?
I decided to find out, so I became a vegetarian. I replaced my meat-heavy diet with more vegetables and pastas. I started eating only organic foods. I still ate eggs and cheese, so technically I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian. But I figured any decreased meat consumption might help my hair.
After a year, I hadn’t noticed any changes in my rate of hair loss. I was still thinning, and just as fast as before. I figured maybe I wasn’t being extreme enough. Maybe I needed to take vegetarianism one step further.
Things changed when I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives.
From Vegetarian To Vegan – All For Hair Health
Forks Over Knives is a documentary about “The China Study” – a collection of research showing an association between plant-based diets, decreased heart disease, and increased longevity. The gist of the film:
- “First world” diseases (diabetes, heart disease, autoimmunity) are almost nonexistent in places where animal protein is rarely consumed
- A plant-based diet devoid of animal protein might prevent and reverse these diseases. All you need to do: become a vegan
I didn’t yet care about longevity or heart health. I just wanted my hair back. And then the film’s narrators made a comment that really caught my attention:
Forks Over Knives also eluded to hair loss as a first world disease.
The argument: Americans eat a lot of meat. In fact, Americans eat more meat than almost all other countries.
The film states that increased meat consumption might be associated with hair loss. Their evidence:
- With the introduction of “Western” foods in China also came an increase in pattern hair loss in China.
- Current generations of Hawaiian men (allegedly) experience more hair loss now than before. This trend started around the time Hawaiians deviated from their native plant-based diets and toward a meat-heavy diet.
Obviously those observations are anecdotal (and yet to be proven). But they still terrified me. I’d been losing my hair for years. I’d been eating tons of animal protein my whole life. And I just finished watching a documentary suggesting that all this animal protein was the reason why I was losing my hair.
What did I do? I stopped being a vegetarian. I started being a vegan.
My Vegan Diet Protocol
I didn’t skimp out on veganism. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. I was already a vegetarian, so I immediately implemented the following changes:
- No more dairy, ever
- No more refined grains. Whole grains only
- No more conventionally grown foods. Organic foods only
- Tons of dark leafy greens. I even bought a Vitamix blender to make morning smoothies
- Regularly rotate grains (oatmeal, quinoa, brown white, whole grain pasta, etc.)
- Regularly rotate vegetables, roots, tubers, fruits, legumes, and seeds
I also kept my calorie count just as high – between 2,500-3,000 calories daily (I’m 6’4″ and 195 pounds).
The shift from vegetarian to vegan felt like a massive dietary overhaul. Moreover, high quality vegan food was much more expensive than my regular diet. But I didn’t care. I was willing to fork over the extra cash and forgo cheese, animal products, and other food cravings… Because this was the diet that would give me my hair back.
But did a vegan diet regrow my hair? Here’s a breakdown of my three-month vegan experience. After that, we’ll dive into my blood work.
My Experience On A Vegan Diet – Hormones, Health, And Hair
I felt incredible. I had high energy. I was waking up early. I was moving around a lot. I felt more alert. I felt better focused.
Things started going downhill. I started waking up feeling very cold. My hands and feet were perpetual icicles. I also noticed my hair was shedding more rapidly than before.
I started measuring my oral temperature. Most people’s temperatures rest at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit around mid-day. My waking temperature was between 95.7 and 96.2 degrees.
At the two-month mark I noticed a shift in my energy. I felt as if my emotional range had become muted. I noticed I’d also become less interested in engaging with people. I felt even colder. My hair shedding was still accelerating.
Two-and-a-half months in, I experienced an abnormally bad acne flare-up. I’d had acne in the past. But this flare-up reminded me of my worst days in high school.
Then just before the three-month mark, I noticed something else… It was the peak of the summer, and contrary to previous years, I hadn’t gotten any tanner. In fact, I looked pasty white, as if I’d been bunkered inside all winter.
This was odd. I was a very active person. I spent a ton of time outdoors – especially during warm months – and I tan relatively easily. But here I was, in the middle of the summer, as pale as a ghost, feeling cold all the time, and with arguably less hair than three months prior.
I felt like I was falling apart.
According to everything I’d read, veganism was the diet the “longest living” people ate. Veganism was supposed to be the diet that (might) prevent more hair loss.
But three months into going vegan, I felt colder, looked paler, had more acne, and was shedding like crazy. Why?
Evaluating My Progress – Turning To Blood Work
At the advice of my doctor, I ordered the a complete blood count, thyroid panel, and tests for vitamin D and B-12.
I tested within normal ranges for almost everything… with a few exceptions.
Below are my notable results – where I missed the mark, and what I learned from each data point:
Thyroid Panel – Results
I’ve written about the importance of thyroid health here. The thyroid is our body’s center for hormone regulation. If our thyroid is consistently under- or over-active, this can result in prolonged hormonal imbalances that may eventually culminate into hair loss. Needless to say, a healthy thyroid is critical for healthy hair.
My thyroid panel tested my Free T3, Free T4, and TSH levels. Here are my results.
The first column is the test, the second column is my numbers, and the third column is the “normal” ranges.
Based on the established ranges, my Free T3, Free T4, and TSH are all normal. According to this data, 99% of doctors would probably say my thyroid is functioning just fine.
But does this panel alone tell the complete story of my thyroid health? No. In fact, when we consider other data points, just the opposite is true.
Beyond Thyroid Panels – Using Temperature, Pulse, And Blood Pressure To Gauge Thyroid Function
Before thyroid panels were widely adopted, doctors used body temperature, resting pulse rate, and even blood pressure to assess thyroid function. Some researchers still believe these measurements provide a better gauge of thyroid health. Why?
- Thyroid blood panels are highly variable. Results are influenced by your food intake hours prior and the time of day you get your blood drawn.
- Thyroid blood panels are just snapshots of thyroid function at one moment. They don’t show long-term trends.
- Oral temperature and pulse rate can be taken daily. It’s cheaper, easier, and allows you to track any trends.
So based on these secondary metrics, what qualifies someone as having “normal” thyroid function?
- Oral temperature – between 98.2 – 98.8 degrees Fahrenheit before lunch
- Resting pulse – between 65-85 beats per minute
- Blood pressure – the established normal ranges for your age, weight, and height
If your pulse and temperature are consistently lower, you might be hypothyroid (a low functioning thyroid). If they’re consistently higher, you might be hyperthyroid (an overactive thyroid). For blood pressure, both low and high readings have been reported in cases of hypothyroidism.
Remember – I’d been tracking my oral temperature daily for a few weeks by now. And I got my pulse and blood pressure checked at my doctor’s visit. So how did I stack up?
- My daily waking oral temperature was consistently between 95.7-96.2 degrees Fahrenheit
- My pulse rate was in the low 50’s bpm
- My blood pressure was 103/62 mm Hg
That’s not good. All three of these metrics suggest I might be hypothyroid.
Now let’s look at some of the symptoms associated with hypothyroidism:
- Poor circulation to the extremities (cold hands / feet)
- Brain fog
- Lack of energy
- Increased hair loss
- Unusually low blood pressure
Since going vegan, I’d developed all those symptoms. With the exception of my thyroid panel, all other signs indicate I’m hypothyroid…
But it’s not fair to draw any conclusions just yet, so let’s look at more data.
Complete Blood Count – Results
Two areas of concern showed up on my complete blood count.
The first column is the test. The second is my results. The third are the ranges.
Based on the normative data, I had…
- High monocytes
- Low lymphocytes
Why is this significant?
The Monocyte-Thyroid Connection
Well, monocytes are a type of white blood cell. They fight off invading microbes, bacteria, viruses, and fungi. If your complete blood count is relatively high in monocytes (like mine was), your body might be fighting…
But according to the research, what else is associated with a high monocyte percentage?
Again, that’s not good. My thyroid panel says my thyroid is fine, but four other data points suggest I’m hypothyroid (in addition to all my symptoms that mirror hypothyroidism).
Changing gears, what can I glean from my low lymphocyte count?
The Lymphocyte-Diet Connection
Lymphocytes are smaller white blood cells found throughout our lymphatic system. They’re critical to maintaining proper immune function.
According to the literature, what historically triggers low lymphocyte counts?
- Low-protein diets
Anything stand out here?
On a vegan diet, my protein intake significantly decreased.
If low-protein diets are associated with low lymphocyte counts, could my vegan diet explain why my lymphocytes are low?
In fairness, I didn’t get a complete blood count before going vegan. So I can’t say for sure. But based on my symptoms and the supporting data, my guess is the two are related.
Finally, there’s one last test where I tested borderline out-of-range: my vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D Levels – Results
My doctor decided to measure my vitamin D by testing my 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. Now I know you might say there are limitations to using 25(OH)D as a measurement for vitamin D status. Those comments are warranted. But nowadays, 25(OH)D is the standard test (for better or worse) to determine someone’s vitamin D status.
So what were my 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels? According to my results, I was borderline deficient:
A vitamin D deficiency is often marked as anything lower than 30 ng/mL, with optimal ranges between 30-100 ng/mL. I was sitting at 30.6 ng/mL… Just barely inside the normal range.
Again, most doctors would read these results and say, “You’re fine.” And again, this isn’t necessarily true.
Research now suggests that optimum 25(OH)D levels might be much higher than 30 ng/mL. Some researchers even believe that a deficiency should be marked for anyone under 40 ng/mL.
Given the split of opinions among researchers, it’s safe to say that being on the low side of the most “forgiving” vitamin D scale is probably no good for health. And that’s exactly where I was sitting… In the middle of summer.
So is a vitamin D deficiency associated with veganism? And is a vitamin D deficiency associated with hair loss?
The Vegan-Vitamin D-Hair Loss Connection
Research shows that vitamin D levels are 74% lower in vegans than in omnivores. This is because…
- Fish and animal products contain the highest amounts of dietary vitamin D. Vegan diets are devoid of both.
- Vegan diets are predominantly high carbohydrate, low fat. Without enough fat or fat-soluble vitamins, your body doesn’t synthesize as much vitamin D from natural sun exposure. This can make you vitamin D deficient.
Let’s elaborate on that second point.
Our bodies can make vitamin D from sun exposure. But this only happens at a good efficiency when we also ingest vitamin D adjuncts and cofactors necessary for its metabolism and synthesis. These are minerals like magnesium and calcium, and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, E, and K.
Most vegan diets are also low-fat. When we eat low fat diets, we not only ingest fewer fat-soluble vitamins, but we also have less fat to process any fat-soluble vitamins we’ve ingested.
The end-result: poorer vitamin D synthesis, paler-looking vegans, and vitamin D deficiency.
Now let’s put this into context:
During my summer of veganism, I remained pasty white (despite tanning well all previous summers). Research suggests that our bodies tan, in part, to protect against vitamin D toxicity.
Since I was pale as a ghost, this suggests my vitamin D levels might be lower than normal. And reading into my test results, it’s no wonder my symptoms match the research. Let’s summarize:
- As a vegan, I was eating low fat, low protein (fewer fat-soluble vitamins)
- Vitamin D levels are 74% lower in vegans than in meat eaters
- As a vegan, my blood tests suggested I was borderline deficient in vitamin D
So veganism can contribute to a vitamin D deficiency.
But does a vitamin D deficiency contribute to hair loss?
The answer: yes.
Low Vitamin D Is Associated With Hair Loss In Both Men And Women
Women 18-45 suffering from sudden onset hair loss tend to have low vitamin D2 levels. And in men and women, a vitamin D deficiency is closely associated with hypothyroidism – of which one of the symptoms is hair loss.
Moreover, some research suggests that vitamin D3 might be a necessary mediator for the generation of new hair follicles (read: hair regrowth). Without it, hair regrowth might be much harder (or impossible) to achieve.
So let’s review:
- Since going vegan, my hair loss increased
- Since going vegan, my vitamin D levels tested borderline deficient
- Vitamin D deficiency is associated with both hypothyroidism and hair loss.
No wonder why my shedding was getting out of control.
Summary: As A Vegan, I Went Hypothyroid And Lost More Hair
While on a vegan diet, I had…
- A low waking body temperature (suggests hypothyroidism)
- A low pulse rate (suggests hypothyroidism)
- High monocytes (suggests hypothyroidism)
- Low lymphocytes (symptom of a low-protein diet)
- Low vitamin D levels (connected to hypothyroidism)
Given the research, these findings seem to explain my symptoms of hypothyroidism and increased hair thinning.
It was clear: a vegan diet wasn’t going to regrow my hair, and a vegan diet definitely wasn’t working for me.
My Transition Away From Veganism
I eventually transitioned away from veganism, but I kept experimenting with new diets. I still am today.
For the past few years, I’ve had success with a modified moderate carbohydrate paleo-based diet. For me, that’s the diet that seems to minimize any systemic inflammation and keep my thyroid healthy.
Since my transition away from veganism…
- My monocytes and lymphocytes are back within normal ranges
- My temperature before lunch is now consistently 98.2+ degrees Fahrenheit
- My vitamin D levels (in the form of 25(OH)D) have doubled
Since I stopped being vegan, my symptoms of hypothyroidism have also vanished. No longer do I wake up cold, have chronically frigid hands and feet, or suffer from nagging brain fog and low energy. And I get tan in the summers.
So does a vegan diet reverse hair loss?
For me, veganism accelerated my hair loss. Based on my experience with the diet (and my experience with other readers), I’ve found veganism might help with longevity, but might be disastrous for our hair.
My Advice For Vegans Suffering From Hair Loss
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan and are losing your hair, your diet may not be helping. But there’s only one way to find out. You need to get some data.
- Start measuring your oral temperature and resting pulse rate
- Test your vitamin D levels
- Test your vitamin B-12 levels (not mentioned in this article, but still just as important)
- Track any symptoms of hypothyroidism
- Consider broader blood tests to gauge other vitamin, nutrient, or mineral deficiencies
If you’re consistently within range on oral temperature, resting pulse rate, vitamin D levels, vitamin B-12 levels, and all other vitamins, nutrients, and minerals… Then maybe your hair loss isn’t diet-related. Maybe a vegan diet is working for you.
But if you test out-of-range anywhere, be willing to experiment. Be willing to change your diet to obtain better nutrition. Be willing to explore diet as a tool to improve your hair health.
A Vegan Diet Accelerated My Hair Loss, But I Am Only One Person
There are people out there who thrive as vegans. I’m not one of them, but I’m just one person.
I don’t want to tell you how to eat or not eat. I’m here to tell you about my experiences fighting hair loss, so that you don’t make my same mistakes.
There are too many factors to prescribe one single diet to the entire world. Genes, gene expression, microbiota, environment, and lifestyle all determine how well we can handle any one diet.
But to find out which diet will make you thrive, you have to experiment. Otherwise, you’ll never know.
Final Thoughts On The Vegan-Hypothyroid-Hair Loss Connection
It’s important to never fall into the dogmatic thinking of, “My diet is the best and I’m not changing it.” Every month, new research emerges that both supports and condemns every single diet imaginable. Just look at all the diets I tried. And guess what? I’m still testing. The moment I stop testing is the moment I stop being objective.
With that said, I’ve worked with hundreds of hair loss sufferers. A small handful of them were vegans who were unwilling to experiment with other diets. None of these people regrew any hair. Not a single one. So does a vegan diet reverse hair loss? Based on my experience, not at all.
Rob English is a researcher, medical editor, and the founder of perfecthairhealth.com. He acts as a peer reviewer for scholarly journals and has published two peer-reviewed papers on androgenic alopecia. He writes regularly about the science behind hair loss (and hair growth). Feel free to browse his long-form articles and publications throughout this site.