Understand the Facts and Myths of Hair Loss and Soy

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LIKE PROPECIA, SOY ACTUALLY SUPPRESSES DHT, A FACTOR OF GENETIC HAIR LOSS IN MEN.

Can soy stop a man from losing his hair? Prevent prostate problems? Or raise his levels estrogen, the “feminizing hormone? And how might soy protein affect someone interested in building muscle? The answers to these questions are varied and conflicting – leaving many confused.

To be sure, there’s a lot of chatter about soy on the Internet – but not all is true, scientifically documented fact. Far from it, in fact. And particularly where it comes to health and products marketed as having health-boosting qualities, it’s a situation ripe with exaggeration and misinterpretation.

Add to that the tendency toward breathless media reporting on valid scientific research – turning minor statistical correlations into all-out directives to change behavior. A good example is how Japanese women have lower rates of breast cancer and easier experiences with menopause. Japanese men have lower rates of prostate cancer, and some assert less androgenic alopecia as well. What is well-documented is how Japanese men and women have lifelong diets that include high rates of soy consumption – but they also consume more vegetables and green tea, and have a lower overall caloric intake, which can affect cancers, menopause and hair loss too.

Studies fail to find out the exact cause-and-effect of any of these things, yet in America there are hundreds of processed foods and supplements containing soy isoflavones, the plant estrogens derived from soy, with health claims directed at women. Conversely, men are often warned to avoid soy because of possible “feminization.”

Hundreds of controlled studies of women in western cultures who consumed these products show slight beneficial effects at best. The effects on men are similarly inconclusive – and potentially confusing.

“I believe there are many women who may have a sub-clinical lack of omega 3 fatty acids, good fats which may actually play a role in healthy hair.” — Samantha Heller, MS RD, New York University Medical Center

The truth about soy: Sifting for validity

It is easy to create a media headline with research that touches on sexuality, aging, attractiveness or dire health consequences. Soy has all of these. Unfortunately, what’s reported on a bodybuilding blog, the nightly news or commercial websites selling food supplements isn’t always vetted by credentialed scientists for nuance. If a lab rat was fed a substance in massive quantities and experienced a notable effect, positive or negative, the message is an oversimplified “Eat X and you get Z!”

Better, look at peer reviewed journals, where exaggeration is prohibited. Also, some of the most credible sources of consumer-friendly health information are MayoClinic.com, WebMD and Andrew Weil, MD (for a good mix of traditional and alternative health perspectives). These websites take a more deliberative approach and are not commercially bound to selling specific products.

The experts weigh in on soy and hair loss

So what do these more reputable sources tell us about men and soy? In a nutshell, this:

  • Dr. Weil cites how dihydrotestosterone (DHT) – a factor contributing to hair loss in genetically inclined individuals – is suppressed by estrogen from soy when eaten in sufficient quantities (note: Finasteride (Propecia) functions by suppressing DHT as well). Related to this and seen in numerous studies is how a portion of the population (between 30 and 50 percent) have gut flora that react with soy’s isoflavones to create something called Equol, a DHT blocker. Yet, no study shows an absolute solution in soy, nor are small quantities believed to have any effect.
  • Suppression of DHT can also reduce benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), an enlarged prostate. Any feminizing effects are minimal (< 2 percent) and reversible. For the guy who exercises, Dr. Weil recommends eating soy in whole food form, such as edamame and tofu, as one of many unsaturated protein sources.
  • WebMD cites the importance of a healthy diet as beneficial to hair, including essential (unsaturated) fatty acids found in soy, canola, nuts and fish. One article quotes Samantha Heller, MS RD, from New York University Medical Center, regarding nutrition: “I believe there are many people who may have a sub-clinical lack of omega 3 fatty acids, good fats which may actually play a role in healthy hair.” The article primarily focuses on women’s hair loss and cites several nutrients that play a role – B12, biotin, zinc and copper – yet supplementation gets tricky because proportions matter.

So if soy consumption, in balance with other nutrients, is something you want to try to stem hair loss, the message is rather simple: eat a variety of foods including moderate amounts of meat, but lean heavily toward soy, fish and nuts. Overall health benefits should result, even if it doesn’t completely retain all your hair.