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Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
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Looking a little thin up top, buddy? Hey… It happens to the best of us. It may be hormonal hair loss caused by male pattern baldness or common causes of hair loss like stress. In some cases, hair loss might even be due to deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals.
Case in point? Good ol’ vitamin D.
Although research is somewhat limited, there’s evidence that vitamin D deficiency can affect healthy hair growth, potentially resulting in shedding, thinning and patchy hair loss that affects certain parts of your scalp.
Vitamins and hair loss share an important link, but you may not need to chug a bottle of Flintstones® Gummy Vitamins or a carton of milk to fix anything just yet.
We’ve discussed what vitamin D is, how it fits into the hair growth process and how vitamin D deficiency may affect your hair below. We’ve also shared some tips and insights about what you can do to ensure optimal vitamin D levels from head to toe.
Simple questions sometimes have simple answers. Vitamin D can indeed cause hair loss, but it’s rare.
Although the precise role of vitamin D in hair growth isn’t well understood, research shows that vitamin D receptors play an important role in the anagen phase of the hair follicle cycle — the phase in which new hairs grow from the follicle to their full length.
One study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information of women between the ages of 18 and 45 found that low levels of vitamin D2 were associated with two common types of hair loss — telogen effluvium and female pattern hair loss.
Another 2014 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that vitamin D deficiency is linked to hair loss, specifically alopecia areata — a form of patchy hair loss that’s caused by an autoimmune disorder.
Here are some important facts about the big D (the vitamin one):
Vitamin D is an essential, fat-soluble vitamin that plays a role in numerous biological processes within your body.
Vitamin D isn’t commonly found in foods.
Milk, soy and certain types of fish do contain vitamin D, but most of it is produced endogenously (by your body) when UV rays from sunlight come into contact with your skin.
Vitamin D is biologically inert. To use vitamin D, your body needs to convert it using your liver and kidneys. This process is referred to as hydroxylation and allows your body to use vitamin D for a variety of important processes.
And there are many important processes to note. In your body, vitamin D is responsible for:
Promoting calcium absorption (keratinocyte differentiation)
Ensuring healthy bone growth and remodeling
Modulating cell growth
Maintaining a healthy immune system
Vitamin D also plays a key role in preventing certain diseases. People with low levels of vitamin D have an increased risk of developing rickets (in infants and young children) and osteomalacia — two diseases that can affect the health and integrity of your bones.
And of course, low levels of vitamin D are also linked to certain forms of hair loss — a topic we’ve discussed in more detail below.
Despite all those milk ads millennials suffered throughout their childhood, vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common. Up to one billion people worldwide — approximately 13 percent of the world’s entire population — are deficient in vitamin D.
If you’re severely deficient in vitamin D, you may notice certain symptoms other than hair loss. Common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include:
Muscle aches and cramps
Bone pain or weakness
Slow healing of cuts and wounds
If you’re shedding more hair than normal and think that you could be deficient in vitamin D, the best thing to do is to talk to a healthcare professional. Your healthcare provider can diagnose vitamin D deficiency via a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test.
This type of blood test checks for 25-hydroxyvitamin D — a common form of vitamin D that circulates in your blood. Oh, and you probably don’t need to ask for that by name — we just like sharing fun facts.
If you try real hard, some folks say you can still hear it — walking home late at night from a bar, or on a cool spring afternoon in the park, outside your window on the busy city street below: “Got Milk?”
Believe it or not, though, not getting enough dairy is only one reason (and a low-level one, at that) you might have a vitamin D deficiency. A… vitamin… D-ficiency?
Anyway, your age, ethnicity and habits may increase your risk of vitamin D deficiency. And then there’s always the sun.
You may have a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency if you:
Spend too little time outdoors in direct sunlight. Low sunlight exposure reduces your body’s ability to produce vitamin D naturally. Certain areas receive less sunlight than others, and that’s not even including seasonal changes in how much you can access — assuming you don’t spend lots of time inside away from natural sunlight. You may have a higher risk of developing vitamin D deficiency if any of this sounds familiar.
Don’t get enough vitamin D from your diet. Certain foods, such as fish, cheese, milk and eggs all contain vitamin D. We’ve listed these foods in more detail below, but if you rarely eat foods that contain vitamin D, you may have a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Have dark skin. People with darker skin pigmentation produce less vitamin D naturally in response to sunlight. If you’re African American or Hispanic, you may have a higher risk of developing vitamin D deficiency than a person with a lighter complexion.
Are older. Older adults produce less vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. The kidneys also become less efficient at processing vitamin D as we age, meaning older adults are more likely to develop vitamin D deficiency.
Are obese. Body fat binds to vitamin D, preventing it from getting into the blood. In one study, researchers found that the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency is 35 percent higher in obese people compared to people in an ideal weight range.
Have Crohn's disease or celiac disease. These diseases may affect the absorption of certain nutrients, resulting in lower vitamin D levels.
Use certain medications. Some medications may interfere with vitamin D metabolism and absorption, including some anti-seizure and antifungal medications, glucocorticoids, cholestyramine and certain medications used to treat HIV/AIDS.
Have had gastric bypass surgery. According to Annals of Surgery, people who have gastric bypass surgery often only consume 50 percent of the recommended daily vitamin D intake, increasing their risk of vitamin D deficiency if they’ve undergone this procedure.
Have another health condition. Other health conditions that can increase your risk of vitamin D deficiency include osteoporosis, skin cancer, chronic kidney or liver disease, lymphomas, hyperparathyroidism, sarcoidosis, tuberculosis, histoplasmosis and others.
Vitamin D deficiency is also common in breastfed infants. You’re probably not an infant if you’re reading this (they usually start with shapes and colors), but if you're breastfeeding, your healthcare provider may recommend giving them a vitamin D supplement.
So you’ve been diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency. What happens next?
Well, your healthcare provider probably recommends using a vitamin D supplement, along with some changes to your diet and habits, to increase the amount of vitamin D you consume. Their advice will likely look a lot like this:
Using a Vitamin D Supplement. If you don’t get much vitamin D naturally, using a supplement like vitamin D3 may be helpful. Vitamin D supplements are inexpensive and widely available. The Harvard School of Public Health says the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin D is 600 IU daily for adults 19 years and older. For adults 70 and up, it’s 800 IU daily.
Eating Foods That Contain Vitamin D. Foods like fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel), avocado, nuts, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms and beef liver are great natural sources of vitamin D. Fortified foods may also contain vitamin D. Certain types of milk, yogurt and other dairy products, as well as soy drinks, breakfast cereals and orange juices, may contain added vitamin D.
Spending More Time in the Sunlight. Your body produces its own vitamin D naturally when your skin is exposed to UV rays from sunlight. Spending too much time in direct sunlight isn’t good for your skin (again, duh), but a small amount of sun exposure (10 to 15 minutes per day, generally) is pretty crucial to producing vitamin D naturally. And remember — always wear sunscreen.
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Overusing vitamin D supplements can be pretty dicey, believe it or not.
Just like getting too little can cause a deficiency, getting too much can cause what’s called “vitamin D toxicity” — a potentially harmful condition that can cause nausea, vomiting, constipation, weakness, weight loss, reduced appetite, heart rhythm problems and even damage to your kidneys (you won't experience this from too much sunlight, FYI).
To avoid vitamin D toxicity, only use vitamin D supplements as recommended by your healthcare provider or another healthcare professional. Also, maybe just spend some time outside instead? It’s like, free, you know.
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Vitamin deficiencies are a bad thing for your long-term health, but when it comes to your hair, you’d have to have a pretty severe problem for a vitamin to be the culprit.
If you’ve noticed your hair shedding or looking thin and think that it could be due to a vitamin D deficiency, talk to your healthcare provider. There’s no danger in having that conversation, and they’ll be able to start moving you in the right direction for hair protection. Here’s the lowdown on how this problem gets solved:
Your healthcare provider may recommend a blood test to see what your vitamin D levels look like. If there’s a deficiency, they’ll recommend natural ways to get more vitamin D, as well as supplements you can use.
If you’re experiencing hair loss as a result of vitamin D (and after other possible causes have been ruled out), they may recommend one of several science-backed hair loss treatment options that are available that can help you slow down or stop hair loss. Some might even help you with hair regrowth in areas of your scalp where your hair has started to thin.
Medication may be the logical next step for you, and if you have questions, we’ve probably already answered them. Our guide to minoxidil vs. finasteride goes into detail on the science behind two of the world’s most effective hair loss treatments to explain how they work and how you can use them to take control over your hair for good.
So get some healthy sun, watch your diet and, if you’re worried about your hair or health, contact a healthcare provider today.