Stress and Greying Hair: New Study

Grey hair is probably the one thing every young adult fears. Hair is no doubt a pivotal part of your persona and having them turn grey – especially prematurely – can be no less than a nightmare!

Since it is a major part of a person’s overall appearance, it has a role in affecting their self-confidence or how they see themselves. That explains how we have so many brands and products today, that target the common insecurity shared by people of their hair turning grey. 

However, amongst all myths and advice, a recent study conducted by Columbia university answers one important question, does stress cause grey hair?

There have been numerous speculations in the past regarding the causal relationship between stress and greying of hair. However, little to no evidence was supplied to support this stance.

There have also been common beliefs like ten hours of stress cause one of your hair to turn white. So let’s dig a little further and find out if it really is true or just a myth?

What Causes Greying of Hair?

Hair pigmentation is one of the unique features of human beings. They range from black, brown, and blonde to red. Human hair color is due to the pigment melanin produced by melanocytes that lie just under your skin (epidermis).

However, like all cells, these cells die via apoptosis and are replaced by new melanocytes.

Older man outside in a forest.

But as we age, due to a complex mechanism (shortening of telomerase in chromosomes), this process gets worse over time, resulting in poor regeneration of melanocytes and, in turn, grey hair.

These telomerase chains can also be gene-related, i.e., some people are more prone to experience earlier greying of hair due to hereditary lineage. In simpler words, if your dad started having grey hair earlier in life, chances are you may too.

The Melanocyte-telomerase system is a physiological mechanism for hair turning grey. Therefore, any pathological process which might impair the production of melanocytes will cause the loss of color.

Our crucial antagonist of the day, stress, has been found to do that.

Stress and Greying of Hair

Indeed, people have long believed stressing can lead to greying of hair in the long run. However, it is hard to look at that objectively for scientists, especially with the experiment requiring sensitive testing methods.

However, the question “does stress cause grey hair?” was answered experimentally by Dr. Martin Picard, an associate professor of behavioral sciences at Columbia University, and his team.

Here’s what they did; they developed a new method to capture highly detailed images of a hair follicle to quantify the extent of pigment loss.

It involved examining each slice measuring about 1/20th of a millimeter wide, representing pigment growth in an hour.

According to Dr. Picard, when seen with the naked eye, hair appears the same color throughout unless a drastic change is seen. He and his team tackled this problem by developing a way to look at minute fair follicles under a high-powered microscope to see even the smallest of changes. 

The experiment involved examining hair samples from 14 volunteers. In which each individual was asked to keep a weekly diary and review their calendars. Then they had to mark the week spent as per the level of stress.

What Did They Find?

One peculiar thing was observed by Picard’s team that some of the grey hair naturally regained its original color, which had never been quantitatively documented.

One of Picard’s team members noticed the peculiar case of a man who went on a vacation, after a long stressful weekend. Upon his return, the man showed a reversal of those newly produced grey hair.

Striking associations between stress and hair greying were revealed and, in some cases, a reversal of greying with stress removal.

Rosenberg and her team at Columbia University also found similar results in their study on “Why does hair turn grey?”

Rosenberg found out that hair turned grey can regain its original color after the removal of stress. This effect was seen across all genders, ethnicities, and races.

Why Does Hair Turn Grey Under Stress?

When your hair is still inside, as follicles, they are under the influence of stress hormones which alter their protein composition.

As soon as they protrude out of your scalp, they stiffen up and become rigid.

Both Rosenberg’s and Picard’s studies show that stress affects mitochondrial functioning, which can lead to deformity in protein structures that make up the hair. Once hair follicles made up of deformed protein grow out of the scalp, they show effects such as greying and getting brittle. 

According to Rosenberg’s results, “Molecularly, grey hair upregulates proteins related to energy metabolism, mitochondria, and antioxidant defenses.

Man with grey hair getting a haircut.

Another study published in the International Journal of Trichology about why hair turns grey shows reactive oxidative species (ROS) seem to affect hair composition and structure.

ROS such as OH radicals is highly reactive molecules that can directly damage cellular structural membranes, lipids, proteins, and DNA.

Our bodies generally have mechanisms to neutralize these, such as antioxidants. However, with age and stress. They tend to malfunction and decrease in number. Thus, leading to greying of hair.

The Bottom Line

So, getting back to our question, “Does stress cause grey hair?” 

As discussed, Picard’s and Rosenberg’s studies both showed how hair could regain color after they removed the stress triggers.

If you have been under stress lately, take some time off. It is always a good idea to spend some time with family, friends or doing something you love, like baking, reading, hiking, etc. Stress cannot be cured, nonetheless, it can be managed. Remember that, chronic stress can lead to much more adverse consequences than grey hair. So, start today! Check out these tips and tricks to reduce everyday stress.

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