Since the rise of photo-sharing social media apps it seems that no workout is truly complete until a post-cool down protein shake selfie has been shared with the #fitfam.
The increased popularity of these fitness drinks, as well as protein bars - which are designed to help build muscle - saw sales leap by almost 500 per cent in five years, according to 2015 research. A report from a separate July 2016 study carried out by Mintel stated that one in four Brits had consumed a sports nutrition product - such as protein shakes or bars, 'muscle milks', and energy gels - in the past three months. This rose to 42 per cent of men in the 16-24 age bracket.
Whilst these products may carry benefits, there is one possible side effect that has not received much attention to date: hair loss.
Protein intake has always been a consideration for gym-goers and runners looking to build and maintain muscle mass, as well as those recovering from injury. As a macronutrient, protein is not stored in the body so a regular supply is needed to reap the benefits.
Whilst eating foods that are naturally high in protein can deliver this effectively through a balanced diet, it has become more fashionable and convenient to simply drink a protein shake after a workout. The key difference between eating your proteins and drinking them is simply a question of delivery speed or, how fast it gets into your system.
Once the preserve of the professionals, specialist performance enhancing products featuring protein and growth hormones are now commonly used by amateur fitness enthusiasts. But how many are aware of the risks they run through frequent consumption?
These risks mostly relate to testosterone production. In cases of male pattern hair loss and in female pattern hair loss the symptomatic hair thinning is caused by a testosterone by-product called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This binds to the hair follicles around the top of the scalp and hairline in adults with a genetic predisposition to these hereditary conditions. The DHT then gradually crushes the hair follicles over time, which is what causes the outward appearance of thinning hair and - in men - a receding hairline and possibly also eventual baldness. Men are believed to produce more DHT than women which is why the studies regarding testosterone levels have focused on men in particular.
There are three main ingredients found in many sports nutrition products that have been linked to hair loss in this way. These are whey protein, creatine and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
Resistance training, such as lifting weights, increases amino acid delivery to muscles, meaning consuming protein straight after you stop can boost muscle growth. One of the most popular types of protein supplements is whey protein. It’s a by-product of cheese production, and is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. But a leading hair expert warns that whey protein could cause your hair to fall out.
Speaking to the Express newspaper, top hair transplant specialist, Dr Bessam Farjo explained: “Whey protein exaggerates or accelerates the hair loss process because there is evidence it increases the level of testosterone when combined with muscle-building exercise.”
High levels of branched-chain amino acids in whey protein isolate - known as BCAA - play a significant role in raising testosterone levels, research has found. Some scientists believe high levels of testosterone in men can cause baldness, because the hormone acts directly on many of the body’s tissues, including hair follicles.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered BCAAs were the prime culprit. The study authors wrote: “Serum testosterone levels were significantly higher in the BCAA group during and following resistance training.”
Conversely, other more recent research has found no evidence of high testosterone levels resulting in an increased propensity to male pattern hair loss. The findings of this 2017 German study, and previous smaller scale studies, seem to suggest that genetic hair shedding comes about as a result of how sensitive a man is to DHT, not how much testosterone is converted to DHT. With a number of conflicting studies, it seems there is not yet a reliably conclusive answer.
Farjo says he witnessed the issues of whey protein and hairloss first hand in his son, Janan Farjo. He was a regular gym goer and user of whey protein when he began to experience hair loss. But since stopping using this fitness supplement, his hair has started to grow once more.
More worryingly, many people are actually consuming much higher levels of whey protein with their workouts than the levels tested in the study. The typical BCAA content of dietary proteins is 15 to 20g per 100g of protein. This means the daily intake of the BCAAs in a 70kg person consuming the RDA for protein would thus be 8.4 to 11.2g. However, many people consume more than 60g per day of BCAAs and over 250g of whey protein daily, potentially accelerating hair loss.
“In contrast, foods like turkey and quinoa are good for hair,” said Farjo. “Other essential nutrients for healthy hair include zinc, calcium, manganese, vitamin C, vitamin D, iron and copper.”
Consuming proteins in a solid form is thought to be beneficial as they are broken down slower and at a more manageable rate than liquid forms, such as protein shakes. It is also worth noting that although vitamins and minerals can assist the function of normal healthy hair growth, they will not prevent hereditary hairloss.
When used as a high-intensity fitness performance-enhancer or muscle-building supplement, the popular amino-acid creatine is believed to trigger or accelerate hair loss. Brought into mainstream use as a sports supplement in 1993, its use has been shown to produce an increase in testosterone.
A study of DHT levels in 20 college-age rugby players in South Africa during their competitive season was published in 2009 in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers discovered that those players who used a creatine supplement had markedly higher DHT levels - though not higher testosterone levels - than the control group who did not use creatine.
"After 7 days of creatine loading, or a further 14 days of creatine maintenance dose, serum T levels did not change. However, levels of DHT increased by 56% after 7 days of creatine loading and remained 40% above baseline after 14 days maintenance (P < 0.001). The ratio of DHT:T also increased by 36% after 7 days creatine supplementation and remained elevated by 22% after the maintenance dose (P < 0.01)," states the report's conclusion.
Though more wider-ranging, large scale trials are necessary for conclusive proof, elevated DHT levels would lead to increased hair thinning in men who are genetically predisposed to male pattern hair loss.
Steroid hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is also known by the names androstenolone or as prasterone and is produced naturally in the body by the adrenal glands, the gonads and the brain. DHEA supplements are known to be used by bodybuilders to help build muscle mass. This is despite the fact that it is actually a prescription medication (except in the USA) which is meant to be used to treat specific medical conditions , including providing HRT for women going through the menopause and for building muscle strength in the elderly.
DHEA is believed to influence the body’s hormonal balance, including increasing testosterone production. Weightlifting and similar anaerobic exercise regimens used to 'bulk up' are known to raise testosterone levels. Again, working on the assumption that increased testosterone leads to elevated DHT levels means that men with a genetic predisposition towards male pattern baldness who are using this steroid to enhance their weight training results are at a higher risk of increased hair loss.
Anyone who notices increased hair fall and is concerned about regrowing hair and preventing baldness should seek professional assistance as early as possible. There are clinically-proven hair loss treatments that can help to stabilise shedding and promote hair growth, and can be used alongside appropriate hair growth boosters as part of a bespoke, comprehensive plan.
The Belgravia Centre is a world-renowned group of a hair loss clinic in Central London, UK. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation from anywhere in the world for home-use treatment.
View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which includes the world's largest gallery of hair growth photos and demonstrates the level of success that so many of Belgravia's patients achieve.