Researchers now find a strong link between stress and premature gray hair. They believe that graying hair may have something to do with the fight or flight response in our body. However, genetics also plays a significant part in the early appearance of gray hair. A study published in the journal Nature suggests that stress and gray hair go hand in hand.
Cells called melanocytes determine our hair color, as they produce the pigment melanin. Melanocyte stem cells that live inside the hair follicle at the bottom of the hair strand produce new melanocytes; however, as we grow older, these stem cells start to disappear. The hair that regrows from follicles that lost melanin has less pigment and therefore looks gray.
Researchers recently proved how stress could accelerate this process, making gray hair appear far earlier than if just aging had been a factor. Below, we’ll talk more about this study as well as ways to prevent premature gray hair from appearing.
Science explains the association between stress and gray hair:
New research from Harvard University in Massachusetts reveals why stress can promote gray hair at earlier ages. The Harvard research team, under the leadership of Dr. Ya-Chieh Hsu of Boston’s Harvard University, used mice to observe how stress could potentially cause gray hair. They exposed mice to three types of stress, which consisted of mild, short-term pain, psychological stress, and restricted movement. Scientists observed a significant decrease in melanocyte stem cells and an increase in gray hair from all methods.
They then wanted to find out why the stress caused premature gray hair in mice. First, they tested whether the immune system could cause the depletion of melanocyte stem cells. However, they found that even the mice with lower immune systems had more gray hair after being exposed to stress. Also, they looked into the role of the stress hormone corticosterone, but adjusting its levels didn’t cause changes in the graying of hair.
The role of the adrenal glands
They finally looked at the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which increased in mice along with corticosterone. The researcher team found that this chemical, also known as norepinephrine, caused the most significant increase in the graying of hair in the mice. Scientists injected the mice with noradrenaline and observed a decrease in melanocyte cells as well as an increase in gray hair.
The adrenal glands mostly produce norepinephrine, but mice without adrenal glands still showed signs of stress-related graying of hair. Noradrenaline plays a considerable part in the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which causes the fight-or-flight response when exposed to stress.
The sympathetic nervous system
The team found that when the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, it plays a significant role in stress-induced graying. Each hair follicle contains these nerves, so during periods of stress, noradrenaline gets released and depletes the hair of color. Millions of these nerves can be found all over the body, so you can imagine how long-term stress affects the mind and body negatively.
Under normal conditions, the melanocyte stem cells in each follicle remain inactive until a new hair comes in, but noradrenaline activates the cell. Using fluorescent labeling, the researchers observed the stem cells change to melanocytes and move away from reserves in the follicles. When stem cells disappear, no pigment gets made, so the hair turns gray and eventually white.
Summary, according to the lead scientist.
The lead study author and also an associate professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard, Ya-Chieh Hsu, Ph.D., said that stress caused more harm in the body than they could’ve imagined.
“After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost. Once they’re gone, you can’t regenerate pigments anymore. The damage is permanent,” he said.
Why do we get gray hair?
Genetics plays the most extensive role in the likelihood of premature graying of hair, followed by stress. Smoking also contributes to gray hair, according to a 2013 study. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as smoking puts enormous strain on the body’s organs, such as the heart, liver, and lungs. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as protein, B12, copper, and iron, can also cause gray hair.
Aging causes gray hair as well due to an increase in oxidative stress caused by an accumulation of free radicals in the body. These have the potential to damage your DNA, tissues, and proteins. Of course, we can’t prevent aging or gray hair at some point, but we can do our bit to keep our bodies and minds healthy. This will allow us to enjoy a little color in our hair for a more extended period, and save money on expensive hair dyes!
For every decade after age 30, people usually have about a 10 percent increase in the likelihood of developing gray hair. If you eat a diet high in fatty acids from foods such as walnuts and oily fish like salmon, plus take a multivitamin and avoid long periods in the sun, you can prevent premature graying of hair.
Since the Harvard study only involved mice, they want to replicate these results in humans in order to solidify their research. However, we can use this research to understand how stress impacts the body in various ways. Stress can cause more severe problems in the body than just gray hair, from heart attacks to strokes to impaired mental health.
“By understanding precisely how stress affects stem cells that regenerate pigment, we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding how stress affects other tissues and organs in the body,” said Hsu.
“Understanding how our tissues change under stress is the first critical step towards eventual treatment that can halt or revert the detrimental impact of stress. We still have a lot to learn in this area.”
Preventing gray hair
So now that you know how stress can lead to gray hair, we’ll talk in more detail about ways you can prevent it. Here are just a few:
Destress in whatever way that resonates with you.
Whether you enjoy meditation, listening to relaxing music, doing yoga, gardening, or going on walks through Nature, make sure you take time to destress each day. After a long day at work or school, your mind and body need to recharge and detox from any negative energy you encounter.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
As we said above, making sure to get plenty of healthy fats from fish and walnuts, protein from quinoa or meats, and lots of vitamins from fruits and veggies will do your body good. Fruits and vegetables have lots of antioxidants, which will help keep your hair vibrant and healthy for longer.