Hair-raising research suggests too many fizzy drinks may cause baldness

Scientists claim to be the first to find evidence of a connection between sugary beverages and male pattern hair loss

A study of more than 1,000 men has linked hair loss to consumption of sugar-filled drinks. Photo: Unsplash
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Too many fizzy drinks may leave a bitter taste for men, according to a study suggesting they could accelerate hair loss.

Researchers in China claim to be the first to have found a scientific link between the consumption of large amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and male-pattern hair loss (MPHL), also known as male-pattern baldness.

They quizzed more than 1,000 men online and found that those who experienced hair loss tended to drink much larger amounts of sugary drinks.

“We found that high SSB consumption is associated with a higher risk of MPHL” the researchers, from Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in the journal Nutrients.

“We recommend more support to decrease SSB consumption among young people to minimise negative health outcomes.”

The findings for the study were based on online responses from 1,028 Chinese men aged 18 to 45, of whom 592 had hair loss.

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What else causes baldness?

A host of other factors have been blamed for hair loss. Here are several key ones:

  • Fat: Researchers in Japan found that a high-fat diet was associated with hair loss, but the results came from studies on mice, so may not be directly applicable to humans.
  • Stress: The Mayo Clinic in the US has highlighted several ways in which stress may lead to hair loss, including that it causes the body’s immune system to attack hair follicles, resulting in a condition called alopecia areata.
  • Fish: Eating some types of fish, notably swordfish and other types of predatory fish, may cause baldness because these fish tend to have high mercury levels.
  • Hair treatments: Hair can become weak and brittle, causing it to thin, because of shampooing too often, bleaching and dyeing. Reports indicate that hot curlers and other treatments can also cause damage, although typically this is reversible.
  • Carbohydrates: Tying in with the new research on sugary drinks, simple carbohydrates including refined sugars may cause inflammation that results in hair loss, studies have suggested. Grains may also play a role.

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Using language that might be seen as insensitive to the “follicly-challenged”, the researchers described the other 436 participants, who were not losing their hair, as belonging to the “normal” group.

Analysing data about drink consumption and whether participants were or were not bald showed “a significant association” between baldness and consuming sugar-sweetened drinks.

Bald people drank an average of almost 4.3 litres of sugar-sweetened drinks each week, compared to just over 2.5 litres among the normal group.

Many beverages were looked at, including soft drinks, energy drinks, juices with added sugar, sweet milk and sweet tea and coffee. All were linked to hair loss, except sweet tea and coffee, which were found to have a protective effect.

Boost for tea and coffee drinkers

The caffeine in these drinks may overcome the negative effects of the sugar and explain why they seem to reduce the likelihood of baldness.

In the UAE the authorities have tried to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks as a way of improving health, with a 50 per cent purchase tax having been introduced in 2019.

As well as identifying this apparent link between hair loss and most sugary drinks, the researchers also offered explanations as to how the beverages may cause younger men to be more likely to lose their hair.

A key mechanism they suggested was that gulping down fizzy drinks increases the concentration of glucose in the blood, which triggers something known as the polyol pathway, in which glucose is converted to other substances.

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Several biochemical processes are at play, but the net result is that less energy is available to cells called keratinocytes in the outer root sheath of hairs.

“Lack of energy in outer root sheath keratinocytes is considered a possible cause of MPHL,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers said that there had been only one previous study looking at sugary drinks and hair loss, and this did not find a link, possibly because no distinction was made between different types of beverages.

Research backs up findings

However, well before the latest study, people have been suggesting a connection between baldness and fizzy drinks.

Dr Lipy Gupta, an Indian dermatologist, has written that carbonated drinks may contribute to hair loss because they interact with insulin in the blood and “make it less responsive to sugar”.

“This leads to an increase in the sugar in your bloodstream, which later goes on to hamper your blood circulation and lower the nutrient supply to your hair follicles, causing hair loss,” she wrote, offering an explanation similar to that given by the authors of the new study.

Also, in an online briefing document, the Belgravia Centre, a hair-loss clinic in London, said that the sugar in soft drinks may affect levels of the hormone cortisone, which in turn influences stress, a major contributor to hair loss.

The clinic also rejected suggestions that rinsing hair in a fizzy drink such as Coca-Cola was a good way of making hair look thicker, following reports that some models do this.

Rinsing hair with “such harsh chemicals”, the clinic said, was “definitely inadvisable”, as it may remove essential oils and disrupt the keratin in hair strands, causing them to break.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 8:45 AM
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