For the more than 50 million men and 30 million women in the United States alone, androgenetic alopecia is a stark reality (1).
At the root of this problem is the substance di-hydrotestosterone, or DHT, a derivative of the hormone testosterone.
And as much as it wreaks havoc with your hair, even topical treatments like minoxidil do nothing to block DHT from attacking your hair follicles.
But there are some ways you can remove DHT from your scalp to give your follicles what they need to grow and flourish.
To begin, let’s look at how DHT impacts your hair’s growth.
DHT and Your Hair
DHT is made from the naturally-occurring hormone, testosterone. DHT is formed when an enzyme known as 5-alpha-reductase, or 5AR, converts testosterone into di-hydrotestosterone (2).
Lowering testosterone levels to control DHT is not an option. Whether you’re male or female, your body needs a certain amount of testosterone to function properly, and you don’t want to upset the natural balance of your hormone levels (3).
Men and women who suffer from male pattern baldness don’t necessarily have more DHT; instead, they have a sensitivity to it — one that causes their follicles to miniaturize and weaken (4).
So, although one approach to controlling DHT would be to control the amount of 5AR circulating in your body or to slow the action of the enzyme, a better option might be to reduce the sensitivity of your follicles to DHT.
This, in concert with topical ways of reducing your scalp’s level of DHT, can help your hair grow stronger and thicker (5).
However, in order to reduce your scalp’s DHT levels, you’ll need to make sure there’s no build-up of waste products or sebum on your scalp.
This excess debris, called a plaque, is quite common in people suffering with androgenic alopecia, and can block hair follicles and weaken hair growth.
What’s Causing Your Sebum Build-up?
There are several things that can be contributing to a build-up of hair-stifling plaque on your scalp. Let’s look at three of the most common.
Androgenetic alopecia is the most common form of hair loss, and it’s believed to be triggered by DHT, a natural hormone found within the body (6).
As mentioned, those suffering this condition are sensitive to the hormone, and this sensitivity triggers a process known as hair follicle miniaturization.
As hair miniaturization occurs, the sebaceous gland grows. A larger gland causes more oil to be produced, and sebum buildup becomes more likely (7).
As more sebum is present within the scalp, more DHT becomes trapped within the follicles. If untreated at the earliest signs, it can be difficult — or even impossible — to reverse (8).
High-fat, greasy foods are a large part of the modern Western diet. These can contribute significantly to the overproduction of sebum and can trigger irritation, inflammation, and blockage of the hair follicle.
In fact, studies show that the three largest dietary contributors to pore-blocking sebum production are (9):
- Hyperglycemic carbohydrates
- Milk and dairy products
- Saturated fats including trans-fats and deficient ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)
The best way to keep your diet from interfering with your hair growth is to change how you eat.
You should cut out foods in the above categories and replace them with foods that are known to alkalize the bloodstream and, therefore, alkalize the scalp’s pH.
Alkalizing diets are low-glycemic diets, a way of eating proven to reduce sebum production, thereby reducing DHT accumulation on your scalp (10).
Poor or Improper Hygiene
It’s commonly believed that washing your hair too little can lead to an oily scalp, but the opposite is true. Washing your hair too much is more likely to cause overproduction of sebum (11).
When you wash your hair with shop-bought products, you strip your hair and scalp of natural oils. This means the sebum must be replaced, causing the sebaceous gland to activate.
Washing your hair too frequently leads to a constant production of sebum. This means you’ll need to wash your hair more often, continuing the cycle of overwashing.
There are two things you can do to break the cycle.
- Wash your hair less often, four or less times per week
- Use gentle shampoos with only natural ingredients
The ingredients in such shampoos are not as harsh, so your natural oils won’t be completely stripped away. Using gentle, natural shampoo cuts down on sebaceous gland activities, and ensures your scalp has the right amount of oil.
Step One: Switch to Natural Hair Care Products
In order to remove DHT from your scalp, you must first remove the waste products that have built up on the epidermis.
Without cleaning this debris, new hairs will be less likely to be able to push through, making it more difficult to grow strong hair.
By cleansing your scalp, you’ll be removing:
- Embedded sebum
- Dead skin
- Cosmetic products
Unfortunately, over-the-counter shampoos contains emulsifiers, waxes, and preservatives which extend the life of the product but may leave debris of their own behind. They can also cause sensitivity and itching and, in some cases, allergic dermatitis.
This is where natural products – those without preservatives and surfactants – come in.
But what ingredients should you look for in a natural shampoo if you struggle with hair loss triggered by DHT?
Caffeine is a stimulant which has been used in cosmetic products for years. However, it’s more recently been shown to contribute to hair shaft elongation and keratinocyte proliferation in human hair follicles (11).
But what about its role in cleansing the scalp of DHT?
One study performed in 2012 found that caffeine, when applied to in-vitro hair follicles, was able to suppress the production of DHT by counteracting the presence of testosterone (12). Even better, caffeine has been shown to penetrate the scalp which means its presence in shampoo can reduce DHT levels effectively (13).
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) is a common addition to many health foods and similar products. One reason that you may want to look for it in a shampoo is due to its cleansing abilities.
As mentioned above, sebum buildup can be a major contributor to the excess accumulation of DHT on the scalp. It can essentially trap DHT and other byproducts within the follicles, and this may further aggravate miniaturization in people with AGA.
One way to effectively remove DHT from the scalp is by stripping the excess buildup of sebum. One way to do so is with a cleansing agent such as ACV.
Acetic acid, the main component of ACV, has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of various wounds (14). One likely reason for this is its ability to remove the infected skin surrounding the wound so as to promote healthy skin cell proliferation.
And while ACV is a ‘watered down’ version of acetic acid, it can very likely deliver similar benefits in the form of sebum removal.
Peppermint oil is a common addition to toothpastes, mouthwashes, mints, gums, and more. But did you know that it may also support a healthy scalp?
But what health benefits, exactly, can it bestow?
Peppermint is perhaps most well known for its antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties (15, 16). These are important in that they can help to maintain a proper balance of the numerous flora found in our bodies and, as a result, on the scalp.
However, as a 2014 study suggests, peppermint oil may be helpful in actively promoting hair growth (17).
Study: Peppermint oil promotes hair growth without toxic signs
Twenty male mice were split into four groups of five. Their dorsal areas were then shaved to induce telogen phase, and they were given one of the following applications six days per week for four weeks:
- Jojoba oil
- 3 percent minoxidil
- 3 percent peppermint oil
Photographs were taken at baseline and throughout the study to track visual results, and biopsies were taken at the conclusion of the study.
While researchers expected there to be significant growth within the minoxidil group, they were surprised to see almost similar results within the peppermint oil group.
As such, the researchers determined:
“that 3% PEO facilitates hair growth by promoting the conservation of vascularization of hair dermal papilla, which may contribute to the induction of early anagen stage.”
Does this conclusively mean that peppermint oil is an effective treatment for hair loss in humans? Not necessarily, but researchers didn’t rule out that possibility. Instead, they said that PEO “could [possibly] be used as a therapeutic or preventive alternative medicine for hair loss in humans.”
Step Two: Reduce DHT Sensitivity
There are several things that can affect your follicles’ sensitivity to DHT.
Understanding how your body reacts to DHT will allow you to take measures to offset this sensitivity through proper nutrition and hormone balance.
Proper Nutrition to Lower DHT Sensitivity
Hippocrates once said, “Let your food be your medicine.” This is especially true for those suffering from androgenetic alopecia.
What you put in your body has an enormous impact on the growth and health of your hair. If you’re trying to regrow hair or prevent hair thinning, you need to think carefully about the foods you eat.
For some, hair loss from eating certain foods can be as a result of a subtle allergic response, as in food sensitivities.
Rather than a severe allergy, as sometimes induced by foods such as tree nuts, shellfish, and even eggs, food sensitivities cause low-level inflammation that persists over days, weeks, and month (18).
While inflammation may be unnoticeable, over time it is cumulative, and can wreak damage to many systems of your body, including your hair follicles.
Also, food sensitivity may crop up at any time. New research has found a link between common reoviruses and sensitivities to food proteins (19).
Reducing the Allergy/Immune Response to Lower DHT Sensitivity
Allergies and autoimmue responses lead to increased hair follicle sensitivity to DHT.
For some, hair loss from eating certain foods can be as a result of a subtle allergic response, as in food sensitivities.
While inflammation may be unnoticeable, over time it is cumulative, and can wreak damage to many systems of your body, including your hair follicles (20).
One of the most prevalent food sensitivities is to gluten, the protein found in grains. It’s called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and can present a host of problems such as heartburn, indigestion, gas, diarrhea, and others. (21)
Also, many people are sensitive to dairy, a condition known as lactose-intolerance. This condition can also be sub-clinical, particularly in overweight people, causing oxidative stress and inflammation quietly (22, 23).
While this is the most widely-studied food sensitivity, there are plenty of others.
Everybody responds to these delayed allergic reactions differently. For some, the allergies can increase sensitivity to DHT.
The best way to determine if you’re having any food sensitivities is through an elimination diet, where you remove suspect foods completely from your diet for at least four weeks, then reintroduce them to gauge your body’s reaction (24).
Balancing Blood Sugar Levels to Lower DHT Sensitivity
Blood sugar level spikes are another dietary mistake that can cause sensitivity to DHT leading to hair loss.
Studies show that androgenetic alopecia is associated with metabolic disorder and insulin resistance — both disorders having do with blood sugar (25).
Another study showed a causal link betwen hyperglycemia, Type 2 diabetes, and hair fall. Even if you don’t have diabetes, the research is clear in presenting a link between high blood sugar levels and thinning hair (26).
This means that a good hair-promoting diet would be high in low-glycemic foods and contain few or no products with added sugars.
Step Three: Block DHT from Accumulating
Once you’ve removed as much DHT from your scalp as possible and you’ve begun eating clean to promote good hair health from within, you can add some natural topical DHT blockers to your hair growth regimen to accelerate results.
Natural DHT Blockers
It’s important to use natural products on your hair to minimize side effects and adverse reactions.
There are a few research studies which highlight the anti-androgen activities of saw palmetto.
One of the most in-depth studies showed a combination of gelatin-cystine and saw palmetto was effective in reducing free radical levels and inducing hair growth (27)
This study followed 48 volunteers (24 male and 24 female) as they applied lotion (either active or placebo) over a period of 50 weeks.
Some participants (12) also took an oral supplement which did not contain saw palmetto, but did contain gelatin-cystine.
All of the patients were previously diagnosed with androgenetic alopecia, ranking anywhere from a stage III to IV on the Norwood-Hamilton scale.
The 48 volunteers were split into five groups:
- Group 1: Active lotion A;
- Group 2: Inactive (placebo) lotion B;
- Group 3: Active diet supplement C;
- Group 4: Inactive (placebo) diet supplement D; and
- Group 5: Active lotion A and active diet supplement C
The lotion was applied twice per day (morning and evening) and the participants were also provided a mild shampoo. They were instructed to use this shampoo throughout the study.
Researchers assessed hair growth using mean percentage variation of hair number per squared centimeter of scalp.
The three active groups (lotion, diet, and lotion + diet) performed significantly better than the two placebo groups (lotion and diet). The most effective was the lotion + diet group, followed by diet, and then lotion.
Since the study was performed to test both saw palmetto and gelatin-cystine, there’s no way to say which of the two worked best.
However, as mentioned, other studies have been performed which show saw palmetto’s benefits for hair growth.
Stinging nettle is another herb which has been shown to have anti-androgenic effects.
One study performed in 2011 showed stinging nettle’s effects on Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) in human patients (30).
This study consisted of 620 patients, and it was performed over six months. The results were collected using various techniques, including:
- International Prostate Symptom Score (IPSS);
- Maximum urinary flow rate (Qmax);
- Postvoid Residual Urine Volume (PVR);
- Serum Pros-tatic-Specific Antigen (PSA);
- Testosterone levels; and
- Prostate size
The techniques above were used throughout the study, and the six-month results proved stinging nettle’s efficacy.
Most notably, both the IPSS and Qmax decreased significantly when compared to the placebo group. The fact that stinging nettle was useful in the treatment of BPH proves its ability to inhibit the activities of 5-apha-reductase.
Further studies carried out on stinging nettle’s abilities to inhibit 5-alpha-reductase showed increasingly encouraging results. Two recent studies performed on rats showed a strong inhibitive effect of stinging nettle on 5-alpha-reductase (31, 32).
With its undeniable ability to inhibit the substance the forms DHT in your body, stinging nettle makes a good topical DHT inhibitor.
Reishi Mushroom Extract
Finasteride is a drug often used in the treatment of androgenetic alopecia, and it also works by inhibiting 5-alpha-reductase. However, it has numerous side effects.
A partial list includes (33):
- loss of interest in sex
- trouble having an orgasm
- abnormal ejaculation
- swelling in your hands or feet
- swelling or tenderness in your breasts
- feeling like you might pass out,
- runny nose
- skin rash
There are even more serious side effects like the development of benign prostate hyperplasia.
Fortunately, there is a natural alternative to finasteride — reishi mushroom (34).
According to a 2005 study created to gauge the DHT-blocking abilities of 19 different mushroom species, reishi mushroom performed in a way comparable to finasteride — without the side effects.
Researchers prepared ethanol extracts of each mushroom species, and then added the extracts to a suspension containing rat liver and prostate microsomes. This was carried out to see which species, if any, could inhibit 5-alpha-reductase.
Reishi showed an inhibitory percentage of over 70%, which was significantly better than the other mushrooms in the study.
Since reishi can inhibit 5-alpha-reductase, it may be helpful in reducing the amount of DHT that attaches to the hair follicles.
To remove DHT from your scalp and keep it from reforming, follow the three-step plan for lasting results.
First, exfoliate your scalp to remove plaque and DHT build-up.
Then, reduce your scalp’s sensitivity to DHT by eating a whole foods, low-glycemic diet and finding and controlling food allergies.
Finally, use natural, topical DHT blockers to keep your scalp free from new build-up of DHT so your hair follicles can heal, rejuvenate, and thrive.