Stress linked to early onset of grey hair - study

The less melanin you have the lighter your hair color is.

In Summary

•Low melanin turns your hair grey or white, which is normally a characteristic of the ageing process.

•While your hair looks like it's all the same colour each strand is different.

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Many factors can cause your hair to grey. These can range from underlying health conditions like Vitiligo, thyroid disease and alopecia to nutritional deficiencies and genetics.

However, a new study from researchers at Columbia University has linked psychological stress to greying hair in younger people. 

According to Healthline, low melanin turns your hair grey or white, which is normally a characteristic of the ageing process.

The less melanin you have, the lighter your hair color is.

“It’s estimated that the odds of your hair turning grey increase up to 20 percent each decade after you hit your 30s. But Some people see greying sooner due to health and genetics,” Healthline states.

How stress is linked to grey hair

While it may seem intuitive that stress can accelerate greying, the researchers were surprised to discover that hair color can be restored when stress is eliminated.

The study, published in eLife, undermines age-old speculation about the effects of stress on hair colour.

The study's senior author Martin Picard says stress also plays a major role in greying hair, highlighting how the issue is more preventable than first thought. 

"Just as the rings in a tree trunk hold information about past decades in the life of a tree, our hair contains information about our biological history," Picard says.

"When hairs are still under the skin as follicles, they are subject to the influence of stress hormones. Once hairs grow out of the scalp, they harden and permanently crystallise these exposures into a stable form."

The connection

Though people have long believed that stress can accelerate grey hair, scientists have debated the connection due to the lack of sensitive methods that can precisely correlate times of stress with hair pigmentation at a single-follicle level.

"If you use your eyes to look at a hair, it will seem like it's the same color throughout unless there is a major transition," Picard says.

"Under a high-resolution scanner, you see small, subtle variations in color, and that's what we're measuring."

The researchers analyzed individual hairs from 14 volunteers. The results were compared with each volunteer's stress diary, in which individuals rated levels of stress weekly.

The investigators immediately noticed that some grey hairs naturally regain their original colour, which had never been documented, Picard says.

Shannon Rausser, the second author on the paper, discovered that reversal of greying was possible in a relaxed environment.

"There was one individual who went on vacation, and five hairs on that person's head reverted to dark during the vacation," Picard says.

To better understand how stress causes grey hair, the researchers also measured levels of proteins and how protein levels varied across the length of each hair.

Changes in 300 proteins occurred when hair colour changed, and the researchers developed a model suggesting that stress-induced changes in mitochondria highlight how stress promotes greying.

Hair dyes are just a temporary solution
Hair dyes are just a temporary solution

Hair re-pigmentation is only possible for some

Reducing stress in your life is beneficial, but it will not necessarily reverse your hair colour.

"Based on our modeling, we think hair needs to reach a threshold before it turns grey," Picard says.

In middle age, when the hair is near that threshold because of biological age and other factors, stress will push it over the threshold and it transitions to grey.

"But we don't think that reducing stress in a 70-year-old who's been gray for years will darken their hair or increasing stress in a 10-year-old will be enough to tip their hair over the grey threshold."

Embrace your greys
Embrace your greys


Since Melanin is responsible for your hair colour, it is recommended to eat foods rich in Vitamin B12, Folate, Copper, Zinc, and Iron. This means eating a lot of foods like legumes, eggs, leafy greens, meat, fish, and whole grains.

However, taking supplements to treat grey hair won’t work unless you have a diagnosed deficiency in any of these nutrients.

Healthline also recommends reducing your exposure to the sun and not using dyes or chemicals, which tends to ruin hair.

“There are numerous hair products and dyes you can choose from, whether you choose to cover your grays or embrace them instead, but remember, stress is not good for your hair, nor your body.”

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