Hair Loss and Addiction – How Substance Abuse Damages Your Hair


Bad hair may appear less of a problem than some consequences of substance abuse, but severe follicle damage potentially leading to complete hair loss can cause low self-esteem and depression. Here is an outline of the potential dangers and what to do to lessen the risks.

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How Bad Are Alcohol and Drugs for Your Hair?

Where usage is occasional and light rather than repeated in heavy doses, probably the risk is small. Many might think the condition of your ringlets and whiskers is irrelevant when dealing with addiction – a disease that at its worst, can kill you easily and quite nastily.  But real life isn’t always that binary.  Heavy substance abusers or indeed occasional drinkers and recreational drug users may not give much thought to the damage they are unleashing on their locks, but the consequences can be severe. Premature ageing generally and thinning hair or actual loss can be quite common. In extreme cases, the body may become overwhelmed by the introduction of toxicity and stress and shut down its hair growth function completely, leading to the condition of near-total hair loss, known as alopecia.

Celebrities Are Not Immune

In July 2022 a headline in the Mirror newspaper proclaimed: “Elton John Hated” His Hair Loss and Blamed Baldness in Years of Drug Abuse”.  Elton is not alone in the frustration, anger, and feelings of depression he says he experienced at this time. It’s true that many celebrities abuse drugs and alcohol, often with consequences direr than hair loss. Nevertheless, Elton’s experience highlights the shock and effect on confidence and self-esteem that can follow such problems.

Reasons for Hair Loss

Hair loss occurs for a number of reasons apart from substance misuse. It can be the result of your genes, nutritional habits, pregnancy, or poor scalp care. It can also be a sign of underlying health issues including immune system problems, thyroid deficiencies, and even mental health issues where stress and anxiety are prominent. But substance abuse can certainly be a factor too.

Hair Damage – Research

2015 Turkish study found significant damage, described as ‘ultra-structural changes detectable in hair obtained from cocaine, heroin, cannabis and LSD abusers’. This was a relatively small survey but a glance at the internet will reveal numerous articles attesting to the problems that alcohol and other substances can inflict on your follicles.

Bad Hair

Hair Loss Is Often a Secondary Effect

Hair loss from mood-altering substances including alcohol is often a secondary effect that results from general neglect, malnutrition, and the build-up of toxins in the body. Heavy substance abuse can sometimes shock the nervous system into producing metabolic changes such as limiting or shutting down, the production of hormones or other important chemicals for growth. This can, for example, cause the actual hair follicles to stop growing and eventually fall out.

Recreational Drug Use

Recreational drug use and occasional drinking may be harmless to hair at first but prolonging such habits allows a build-up of toxins in the body leading to poor health, muscle weakness, an inefficient immune system, and general ill-health. All this can inhibit the body’s natural impulses for growth, including your hair.

Dangerous Additives

Apart from the danger in the drug itself, many street drugs sold in powdered form are adulterated with additives to increase their bulk (and therefore the profit) such as thallium salts, a form of rat poison shown to cause hair loss, which is often added to cocaine and heroin. 

Loss Can Be Temporary

While it is possible that the body may recover from hair loss caused by drug use if the use itself ceases, there is no guarantee of this and the longer drug use continues, the more likely there will be permanent damage.

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Direct Causes of Hair Loss Are Difficult to Prove

The biochemical processes that cause hair problems are often highly complicated and difficult to prove conclusively. The number of studies specifically focused on hair loss resulting from drug use is limited. Nevertheless, there is a body of scientific opinion supporting these conclusions, regarding the consequent damage from individual substances.

Here Are Some of the Most Damaging Substances:

 

Alcohol

When alcohol becomes the most important thing in a person’s life, they are likely to neglect essential elements of good health such as exercise, nutrition, personal hygiene, and self-care generally. This can result over time in bodily deficiencies of essential nutrients such as copper, iron, and zinc and the insufficient absorption of sufficient amounts of protein. The immune system of the body which may be already weakened by lack of exercise and toxicity thus becomes impaired. When alcohol becomes the body’s main intake for nutrition, it will eventually affect the whole metabolic and digestive process whereby food and drink are converted into energy and growth. Virtually the whole range of the body’s organs suffer as a result and hair and skin are certainly affected negatively.

 

Cocaine

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information(a part of the United States National Library of Medicine) reports that microscope examination of the hair of cocaine users revealed a 98% change in hair structure with internal and external damage, making cocaine use probably the most likely to cause lasting problems. Crack cocaine may be expected to intensify and speed up the process. As if this were not enough, cocaine users are also likely to cause themselves damage due to the amount of stress involved in most drug users’ lifestyles.

 

Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine use can produce hair problems similar to cocaine use with additional risk from the phenomenon of tactile hallucination often experienced by users – crawling and itching skin which can lead to excessive scratching and hair pulling. Methamphetamine is especially likely to impair the production of keratin, the body’s ‘good hair’ protein.

 

Heroin

A 2016 Chinese study found significantly higher cortisol levels in the hair of heroin users pointing to the likelihood of damage and hair loss (cortisol is a chemical produced by the body in times of stress – when the body is in the cortisol-producing mode it is less able to provide hair-growth nutrients).

 

Marijuana

The THC cannabinoid chemicals in marijuana have been found to inhibit the growth of normal human hair follicles which can lead to thinning hair and eventual baldness. A 2007 study by the University of Debrecen, Turkey suggests that cannabinoids can inhibit proper development and growth of the hair shaft, thus inducing hair loss. Additionally, frequent cannabis use can lead to poor nutritional choices, which can also lead to poor hair health.

 

Nicotine

A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Trichology found that ‘smoking may lead to hair loss by vasoconstriction, by forming DNA adducts, free radical damage to the hair follicle, by enhancing senescence and hormonal effects.’ In other words, there are a number of ways in which smoking harms hair. The study states that more research is needed but nevertheless, there is a body of evidence and opinion that already supports this view.

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How to Prevent Hair Loss From Drug Use

  • Stop the addictive habit – this obvious answer is just the first stage in rehabilitating your hair. 
  • If you can’t quit altogether, at least consider changing your methods of ingestion. Smoking is generally more damaging to the body because combustion releases chemicals that are particularly toxic.   Consider oral ingestion for example as an alternative to smoking heroin, crack cocaine, or marijuana.
  • Check your diet to ensure you are getting enough of the right nutrients and take additives if necessary.
  • Check your lifestyle with a view to reducing mental and emotional stresses and strains. These can occur in workplaces or outside relationships particularly.
  • Consider meditation and mindfulness or counselling as ways of keeping yourself in balance
  • Review your bodily health and hygiene. Are you doing enough exercise? Are you treating your scalp correctly – consider hair cleanliness, scalp massage, and direct hair applications.

How to Care for Your Hair

It is perhaps ironic that alcohol in the form of beer or even vodka is often recommended for use in the washing and cleaning of hair. Apart from these, there are a huge number of products available for the care of your hair, some making extravagant claims about growth and replacement. These should be approached carefully, and advice obtained. Certainly, regular washing of your hair and scalp can help. 

Reversing Hair Loss

If your hair is already thinning, there are therapies available to help. These may be holistic involving nutritional or lifestyle changes or more radical, such as implants and laser treatment. Until you have decided to stop addictive substance use, it may be difficult to get positive results. There are plenty of professional healthcare specialists available to consult though it would be advisable to obtain recommendations and advice before embarking on a course of treatment.

References:

  1. Elton John ‘hated’ his hair loss and blamed baldness on years of drug abuse
  2. Ultra-structural hair alterations of drug abusers: a scanning electron microscopic investigation
  3. Elevated Hair Cortisol Levels among Heroin Addicts on Current Methadone Maintenance Compared to Controls
  4. Role of Smoking in Androgenetic Alopecia: A Systematic Review

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