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Does Stress Cause Grey Hair?

Apologies to Mom and Dad: You may not have been exaggerating when you said, ” Does stress cause grey hair ” or “Your children caused your hair to turn gray.”

It seems common knowledge or accepted wisdom that stress can make your hair gray. Gray-haired individuals have blamed stress for centuries, whether it’s the children, the spouse, the job, or something else.

Remember US President Barack Obama? During the first term of his presidency, the color of his hair was relatively dark, yet it had significantly grayed by the conclusion of his second term. His job stress was to blame.

Not so quickly! The belief that stress causes graying may be largely unfounded. Stress plays a role in graying, but other things, like genes and age, do too, and many individuals who experience significant stress never turn gray.

Remember that individual hair strands do not change color (unless they are dyed). When we notice someone’s hair starting to gray, it’s usually because pigmented hairs have lost their color, and non-pigmented hairs have grown instead.

When enough new hairs don’t have pigment, the change can be seen, and a person’s hair looks gray. In most cases, this results from a gradual decline in pigment production by the cells of hair follicles as one ages.

While graying typically begins during middle age, heredity also plays a role.

A study published in Nature last week suggests that stress may play a significant role in the rate at which colored hair turns white.

Scientists have been aware of the potential link between stress and gray hair for some time. However, this latest study from Massachusetts’ Harvard University looks into the precise mechanisms at work.

The “stress hormone” cortisol, which surges in the body in response to a “fight or flight” response, was the focus of the researchers’ initial experiments.

It is a vital bodily function, but chronically elevated cortisol is associated with various adverse health outcomes.

The sympathetic nervous system, a different part of our body’s fight-or-flight response, was to blame.

The researchers discovered that these nerves penetrate each hair follicle throughout the body.

The “color reserves” in the hair are depleted due to the premature activation of pigment-producing stem cells brought on by the release of chemicals during the stress response, specifically norepinephrine.

In a worldwide press release, Ya-Chieh Hsu, Ph.D., an associate professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard and the study’s lead author, stated, “The negative impact of stress that we discovered was beyond my wildest imaginings.” “Within a few days, all pigment-regenerating stem cells were eliminated.” Once pigments are gone, they cannot be regenerated. “The damage is irreversible.”

What Exactly is Stress?

The body’s reaction to sudden (acute) stress can be lifesaving if you’re facing a charging tiger, despite the widespread belief that stress is bad for your health. Among other physiological reactions that get you ready to fight or run (and in this case, I’d suggest running), your heart beats quickly, your blood pressure and blood sugar go up, and your muscles’ blood vessels widen.

Although persistent stress may well have harmful effects on health, different people respond differently to similar stressors. It can be challenging to define stress because what one person finds dreadful and distasteful (like public speaking) may be intriguing and enlivening to another.

Additional Bodily Effects of Stress

The “fight, flight, or freeze” response is triggered by the release of hormones in response to a stressful situation. This initiates a group of changes in the body, which include:

  • accelerated heart rate and respiration
  • tense muscles perspire
  • higher metabolic rate and blood pressure

These physical alterations are helpful when you have to act quickly to save your life. These foods were helpful to our forefathers because they needed a quick energy boost to fight or escape from predators like saber-toothed tigers.

However, this emergency stress response is not always beneficial in today’s modern world.

Our bodies can handle infrequent stress. The body remains alert when stress becomes ongoing, or the mind keeps going to perceive a threat. If this stress response remains active, it may contribute to health issues such as:

  • headaches
  • sleep-wake disorders
  • digestive disorders
  • chronic fatigue ulcers
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders

How to Alleviate Anxiety

The relaxation response is the antithesis of the stress response. Deeper, slower breaths, a slower heart rate, and fewer stress symptoms result from mindfulness.

One can reduce stress and deep trigger relaxation in several different ways. Consider the following coping techniques to help you alleviate daily stress:

1. Try Breathing Deeply

Intentionally taking slow, deep breaths slows the heart rate. Concentrating on one’s breathing can help to take one’s mind off stressful issues.

Inhale: Inhale slowly through the nose for four seconds.

Pause: Maintain the breath for four seconds.

Exhale: exhale slowly through the mouth for six seconds.

Repeat: Do this for a minimum of two minutes. Build up gradually to practicing this exercise for 5 to 10 minutes.

2. Think about Mindful Living.

Mindfulness can be put as the exercise of the mind where one focuses on the present moment rather than anything else. But, it is being present in the moment without passing judgment.

This enables you to concentrate on the current task rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

Mindfulness instruction is available from a wide variety of mobile apps. Yoga, tai chi, and meditation are a few other methods of stress reduction that you might want to look into.

3. Establish Healthy Sleep Habits

Stress can be greatly diminished by getting a good night’s sleep. Consider the following tips to enhance your sleep hygiene:

  • Try to go up for a consistent schedule of going to sleep and waking up at a particular time each day.
  • Limit light-emitting electronic devices, such as computers and smartphones, before bedtime.
  • You should have a calm, dark, and cool bedroom.
  • Before going to bed, avoid large sumptuous meals, caffeine, and alcohol.

4. Get Regular Exercise

The release of “feel-good” chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin is triggered by physical activity. These are natural stress relievers. According to reputable sources, regular physical activity may reduce stress-related risk factors. One should exercise for at least 30mins daily. 

5. Discuss With Someone

Sometimes simply conversing with someone can be helpful. It may help to reach out to a trusted friend or family member for a chat or a good laugh to relieve some of your stress.

If coping is difficult or your stress symptoms do not diminish, it may be time to consult a professional. Finding a therapist or support group to help you deal with life’s pressures is easy, thanks to the abundance of options available.

The Physiology Behind the Development of Gray Hairs

Melanocyte stem cells at the hair follicle base produce new melanocytes. These stem cells gradually deplete as we get older. When hair follicles lose melanocyte stem cells, the resulting gray hair is less pigmented.

Researchers sought to determine if and how stress could also cause graying hair. On January 22, 2020, Nature published the findings.

In an experiment using mice, Dr. Ya-Chieh Hsu and colleagues from Harvard University looked into the link between stress and the premature graying of hair. Mild, transient pain, psychological stress, and motion restriction were the three types of stress applied to the mice. All resulted in noticeable melanocyte stem cell loss and graying of the hair.

Researchers already knew that stress accelerated aging, so they looked into various contributing factors. They first checked to see if the immune system was to blame for the reduction in melanocyte stem cells.

Grey hair appeared only in mice with weakened immune systems exposed to stress. The researchers looked into the stress hormone corticosterone but found that adjusting levels did not affect stress-induced graying.

Studies have shown that the stress hormone noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine) is crucial for the onset of gray hair. Researchers zeroed in on noradrenaline because it, like corticosterone, was found in higher concentrations in stressed mice. Researchers induced melanocyte stem cell loss and hair graying by injecting noradrenaline beneath the skin of non-stressed mice.

The known response to stress is generally triggered by the hormone norepinephrine, the nervous system’s primary neurotransmitter. The adrenal glands produce the majority of noradrenaline. However, mice lacking adrenal glands exhibited stress-induced graying.

Ultimately, the team discovered that sympathetic nervous system signaling plays a crucial role in stress-induced graying. The sympathetic nervous system releases norepinephrine as a response to stress caused in the body. Adrenaline plays a role in stem cell activation. Normal hair follicles have melanocyte stem cells, normally dormant until new hair grows.

Fluorescent labeling allowed the scientists to track stem cells as they differentiated into melanocytes and left their hair follicle reservoir. Without stem cells, the body can’t make new pigment cells, so new hair will eventually turn gray and white.

Considerable Evidence Suggests…

Hair grows from the scalp down into the skin in follicles in reaction to electrical and chemical signals, which include stress hormones. Once hairs emerge, their molecular structure is still intact, reflected in their pigment.

Using high-resolution scanners, scientists can detect minute color variations in individual human hair strands.

Individual strands of hair from 14 participants, all of whom kept stress diaries, were examined for fading hues. The results were startling: the hair pigment of the volunteers faded as their stress levels rose.

An associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, Martin Picard, Ph.D., led the study. As the stress subsided, the participants’ hair regained color, according to Picard.

Researchers employed a technique to capture images of hair fragments so minute that they represent an hour’s worth of growth. Ayelet Rosenberg, a research assistant in Picard’s laboratory and the first author of the study, devised the method that allowed researchers to measure pigment loss.

When a person’s hair color altered, researchers noted shifts in over 300 proteins.

They built a mathematical model to foretell how hair might age over time. The model suggests that stress can cause a temporary loss of hair color at some point in a person’s life, but this can be reversed if tensions subside.

These results add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that the biological process of aging is not inevitable or linear and may be slowed or even reversed in certain circumstances.

By learning more about the underlying biology of pigment loss, we may one day be able to stop gray hair at the doctor’s office rather than the hairdresser’s.

Why do Folks Go Gray…

However, stress is not the only or even the primary cause of gray hair in the majority of people.

In most instances, it is due to simple genetics.

Losing melanocytes in the hair follicle causes gray hair. Unfortunately, no treatment can reverse the effects of aging on these cells or the pigment melanin that they produce, as said according to Dr. Lindsey A. Bordone, who works as a dermatologist at ColumbiaDoctors and an assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, as reported by Healthline. “Genetic factors determine when an individual turns gray.” When this is genetically predetermined to occur, there is nothing that can be done medically to prevent it.

This does not imply that environmental factors, such as stress, play no role.

A study done in 2013 suggested that smoking can be a risk factor for premature graying of hair. So, if you want to keep your hair young and bright, you should quit smoking.

Other than that, certain deficiencies such as Vitamin B-12, iron, or copper can also contribute to graying.

This stress is caused by a disparity between antioxidants and free radicals in the body, which can harm tissue, proteins, and Genetic material, according to Kasey Nichols, NMD, an Arizona doctor and health expert for Rave Reviews. Rave Reviews is a website that provides information and reviews on various products related to health and wellness.

In addition, oxidative stress is an inevitable aspect of living things.

After the age of thirty, Nichols found that there was a roughly ten percent increase in the likelihood of developing gray hair for each decade that passed.

You can put off premature graying of your hair by eating foods like walnuts and fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, staying out of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays for your skin and hair, and supplementing your diet with vitamin B-12 and vitamin B-6.

However, if you are prematurely graying, it wouldn’t hurt to get a checkup, just in case natural genetic factors are not the only cause.

The Graying Reversal Will Not Work for all People

Picard stated that hair must reach a certain threshold before it turns gray. According to the study’s findings, if a person’s strands were already on their way to turning gray anyway (perhaps around the time they reach middle age), then a stressful event could push hair cells past that threshold earlier. After that, the hair might revert to its natural color once the stress has subsided and risen to a level just above the threshold.

Some people notice gray hairs in their 20s, while others don’t until their 50s, so the window of opportunity varies.

“However, it is unlikely that 30-year-old gray hairs can be reversed,” Picard remarked.

Likely, any reversal of graying will only be temporary; as a person ages, their hair will once again cross the threshold as part of the natural aging process and turn gray permanently.

Hair re-pigmentation is Only Possible For a Select Few

Reducing stress is a worthy objective, but it will not necessarily restore your hair to its natural color.

“Based on our mathematical modeling, we believe that hair must reach a certain threshold before turning gray,” says Picard.

“However, we do not believe that lowering stress levels in a person who is 70 years old and whose hair has been gray for years will cause their hair to darken, nor do we believe that increased stress levels in a person who is 10 years old will cause their hair to turn gray.”

The new method for measuring minute changes in hair color enables the use of hair pigmentation patterns analogous to tree rings. This could determine the impact of previous life events on human biology.

Future monitoring of hair pigmentation patterns may provide a means of determining the efficacy of treatments designed to reduce stress or slow the aging process. If we can learn how “old” white hairs can return to their “young” pigmented state, it may also be possible to gain insight into the general malleability of the aging process in humans.

How to Maintain Youthful Cells:

In addition to reducing stress, certain behaviors can positively influence the biology of aging.

  • Refrain from indulging in binge eating. – According to Picard, “Overconsumption and offering your body excessive amounts of anything is not decent, and there are many companion animal studies that demonstrate that feeding living creatures fewer calories has a positive effect on the aging biology of those animals.”
  • Physical activity-  “Being physically active positively affects the entire body. He noted that it stimulates communication between different body parts and releases beneficial hormones.
  • Do things that give you a sense of gratitude or affection-  Positive emotions are associated with improved mitochondrial function, the battery-like organelles within cells. “Perhaps that’s why we feel more energized when we’re in a good mood,” Picard speculated.


Apeksha Soni

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