Can Stress Cause Your Hair to Turn Gray?

Monday Aug 24 | BY |
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My dad rocked the most impressive head of hair and was very proud of it. At 55, you had to look hard to find a single gray hear in his abundant hair.

Real-Fred

My dad at 55 (I inherited his inability to keep eyes opened during picture taking).

Some people think that hair health is a reflection of overall health, as exemplified by the belief that gray hair can revert to their original color when following a healthy diet.

My dad did have great hair, but that didn’t prevent him from dying of a heart attack at the unfortunate age of 63, with only a few gray hairs betraying his age. In his case, his healthy-looking hair wasn’t a reflexion of his overall state of health.

As a man and as his son, I grew up thinking, “Awesome, I’m going to be just like my dad. With his genes, I’m going to get a full head of hair and no gray hair or almost no gray hair!”

And I found my very first gray hair at the age of 18, so I thought, “That’s strange.” Nothing more for a while until I started going grey in my 30s. Around my 33rd birthday, it became obvious.

When you start getting gray hair, at first they seem kind of hidden. You have to look closely and then you see them. When you take a picture, unless you’re in full sunlight, at first it’s not obvious, but then at some point it does become obvious.

Naturally this brings up the question: Is gray hair caused by stress and can a particular diet, maybe one rich in minerals and raw foods and greens and juices, prevent gray hair?

There have been some stories told in the raw food world. That of Ann Wigmore, for example, who popularized sprouts and wheat grass juice, claimed to have recovered her natural hair color after consuming wheat grass, a claim that of course has never been tested or verified.

On the diet part first.

When we look at people that are promoting healthy diets, whether they be Paleo, raw foods, juicing, green smoothies, etc, we find that there seems to be an equal distribution in terms of those who get gray hair and those who don’t.  Of course, this doesn’t take into account the people that are possibly dyeing their hair.

Personally, I’ve never noticed that people on a particular diet were able to overcome these by processes of the aging process.

What is premature graying of the hair? Well typically, Caucasian people start going gray in their mid 30s, Asians in their late 30s, and people of African descent in their mid 40s, but half of all people have significant amount of gray hair by the age 50. For a person to be prematurely gray, a white person let’s say, they would have to turn gray by age 20. For African-Americans, it would be before 30.

What Causes Hair to Turn Gray?

Hair starts to turn gray when cells in our hair follicles stop producing “melanin,” the protein that adds color to the hair and skin. There are two basic theories to explain why this happens:

  • Hair turns gray because certain genes that control the production of melanin “turn off,” and the production slows and/or stops.
  • Hair turns gray because some factor of aging (other than genetic changes) affects melanin production.

Some people think that other factors are involved, and that we may be able to exert some control over the process. Often we imagine that stress, for instance, gives us more gray hairs, or that if we’re not getting enough vitamin B, we may see more than we like.

Are these or any theories like them true? Here’s what we know so far.

A Simple Matter of Oxidation?

In 2009, researchers were studying vitiligo, the skin condition that results in patches of white skin with no pigment. They found that people with this skin condition had less active catalase—an enzyme that breaks down hydrogen peroxide, a type of free radical. As a result, they had higher levels of hydrogen peroxide in their skin.

If you know hydrogen peroxide, you know that it has a bleaching effect.

Turns out that every hair cell also creates a little hydrogen peroxide. It’s not a problem unless we get a buildup of the stuff, or unless we become less efficient at breaking it down. Researchers found that humans with gray hair showed an accumulation of hydrogen peroxide in the scalp, along with a low level of catalase and some other changes with regards to enzyme function that typically supports melanin production.

They concluded that a slow down in hair follicle repair, a buildup of hydrogen peroxide (oxidation), and disrupted enzyme function stopped the production of melanin.

It seems to be a process that’s very similar to other types of aging—we lose the ability to keep up with cellular repair, and oxidation eventually gets the best of us.

The study wasn’t the only one to pin gray hair on free radical activity and the slow down of repair systems.

In 2014, for instance, researchers examined gene expression in both colored and gray hair samples, and found that genes involved in producing melanin were “down-regulated” in gray hairs—and that hydrogen peroxide activity was “strongly repressed.” They concluded that “compromised antioxidant activity in gray hair follicles” affected melanin cells.

So in a nutshell, this is all very complicated verbiage to simply say: it’s just part of the aging process. 

Antioxidants to the Rescue?

A 2013 study in the same journal same issued a press release about an exciting new study. It was entitled, “Gray hair and vitiligo reversed at the root.”

They concluded that their results confirmed evidence that free radical damage was involved in creating gray hair (and vitiligo), and that reducing this damage can result in repigmentation.

“For generations, numerous remedies have been concocted to hide gray hair,” Gerald Weissman, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of the study journal, said in the press release, “but now, for the first time, an actual treatment that gets to the root of the problem has been developed.”

It will take time before this research is duplicated, and before any potential anti-gray products are produced because of it (though manufacturers are chomping at the bit after this promising study)

Can stress cause us to go gray prematurely?

It’s possible, but I seriously doubt that it’s the case in most people who naturally go gray.

A small study among patients at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore showed accelerated graying among patients under stress. Animal studies have also shown that chronic stress can cause damage leading to gray hair. In addition, a 2013 animal study reported that stress depleted the number of stem cells in hair follicles, which could also cause gray hair.

So it’s possible, but it’s not likely to be the main cause.

Why Should We Care?

This is largely an issue with our youth-obsessed culture, but has very little to do with overall health.

As of late, the trend seems to be to “keep it natural” in men.

Unknown

 

For women, we’re far from seeing the same “gray fox” trend, but who knows how that’ll change in the future.

Yes, gray hair is usually a sign that you’re getting older, but not necessarily that you’re unhealthy. Likewise, unusual lack of gray hair for your age is likely a stroke of luck and not a reflexion of your inner state of health.

What about natural remedies? For the most part, they’re useless. But let’s review the ones that might make a difference:

  • Nutrition : We have some research connecting certain nutrient deficiencies with premature graying hair. Keep in mind, however, that these are deficiencies—it does not mean that excess levels of these nutrients will stop graying hair. If you eat a healthy diet with the right supplements (B12, etc.), it’s unlikely that anything else will make a major difference.
  • Reduce oxidative stress: So much of aging—including gray hair—has been linked to oxidative stress that boosting your intake of foods rich in antioxidants may help deter the effects of aging overall.

 

* * *

Sources
Andrzej Slominksi, et al., “Hair Follicle Pigmentation,” Journal of Investigative Dermatology, (2005) 124: 13-21, http://www.nature.com/jid/journal/v124/n1/full/5602636a.html.

Tara Parker-Pope, “Unlocking the Secrets of Gray Hair,” New York Times, March 9, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/health/10well.html?_r=0.

J.M. Wood, et al., “Senile hair graying: H2O2-mediated oxidative stress affects human hair color by blunting methionine sulfoxide repair,” The FASEB Journal, July 2009; 23(7):2065-2075, http://www.fasebj.org/content/23/7/2065.abstract.

Ying Shi, et al., “Premature Graying as a Consequence of Compromised Antioxidant Activity in Hair Bulb Melanocytes and Their Precursors,” PLoS One, 2014; 9(4):93589, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3973559/.

Ralph M Trueb, “Oxidative Stress in Ageing of Hair,” Int J Trichology, Jan-Jun 2009; 1(1):6-14, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2929555/.

Karin U. Schallreuter, et al., “Basic evidence for epidermal H2OW/ONOO-mediated oxidation/nitration in segmental vitiligo is supported by repigmentation of skin and eyelashes after reduction of epidermal H202 with topical NB-UVB-activated pseudocatalase PC-KUS,” The FASEB Journal, August 27, 2013; 27(8):3113-22, http://www.fasebj.org/content/early/2013/04/29/fj.12-226779.abstract.

“Gray hair and vitiligo reversed at the root,” Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, May 3, 2013, [Press Release], http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-05/foas-gha050313.php.

Coco Ballantyne, “Fact or Fiction?: Stress Causes Gray Hair,” Scientific American, October 24, 2007, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-stress-causes-gray-hair/.

“At Last, a Reason Why Stress Causes DNA Damage,” Duke Medicine News and Communications, http://corporate.dukemedicine.org/news_and_publications/news_office/news/at-last-a-reason-why-stress-causes-dna-damage.

Bianca Nogrady, “Stress really may turn your hair gray,” ABC Science, June 10, 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/06/10/3778375.htm.

Malanie Haiken, “A Pill to Prevent Gray Hair—is It Finally on the Way?” Forbes, February 28, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniehaiken/2013/02/28/a-pill-to-prevent-gray-hair-is-it-finally-on-the-way/.

Janet Renee, “Does Poor Nutrition Make Your Hair Grey?” SF Gate, http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/poor-nutrition-make-hair-grey-9607.html.

Fatemi Naieni F, et al., “Serum iron, zinc, and copper concentration in premature graying of hair,” Biol Trace Elem Res., April 2012; 146(1):30-4, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21979243.

Ramesh M. Bhat, et al., “Epidemiological and Investigative Study of Premature Graying of Hair in Higher Secondary and Pre-University School Children,” Int J Trichology, Jan-Mar 2013; 5(1):17-21, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3746220/.

Rabia Cherqaoui, et al., “A Reversible Cause of Skin Hyperpigmentation and Postural Hypotension,” Case Reports in Hematology, May 2013; 680459, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23840983.

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

13 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. BarbaraL says:

    I think stress IS very related. I went thru a shock in my mid thirties and went very gray in a few days. Also, look at all the Presidents, they seem to go gray very quickly after taking office, or so it seems … especially Pres. Obama!

  2. Abram says:

    Thanks, Frederic, for this information. I wonder if this applies to baldness, too? At least Male hair-loss. I always imagined that healthly eating would prevent this. But WFPB leaders, like Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and Dr. Michael Klaper seem to show that Hair-loss may be unrelated to optimal nutrition?

    thanks,
    KAbr.

    • I don’t think hair loss has much to do with nutrition, overall. As always, there may be exceptions. But as you’ve accurately pointed out, many people living on much superior diets still go bald. I’m 39 and I haven’t lost much hair, but I did lose a bit. After researching the issue, I decided to wash my hair three times a week with Nizoral shampoo to prevent hair loss. It has worked really well and I’m not losing any hair.

  3. Nicole says:

    Lovely photo of you and your dad

  4. Louann Lampa says:

    The first patch of white hair behind the ear was found by a hair salon.
    At 24, friend said I should color my hair because I had a white patch above the temple, like my Mother and Grandmother. By 36, I had brain surgery , and when the hair returned 6 months after the surgery it came out TWICE AS MUCH as it had been before the surgery. Stress can be one of other causes, and surgery, especially brain surgery, can be a very stressing situation.
    I never colored it at, at 70, I enjoy my white hair.
    I am what I am, and suggest that all be happy to be what we all are. It is the INNER BEING, expressing joy and happiness, not the external person is what really counts

  5. Linda says:

    I agree stress would contribute, but what about all those chemicals in shampoos etc. I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones only have very few gray hairs at age 54. I think because I have always used natural shampoos, never died or sprayed my hair etc. And of course ate a healthy plant diet. I have had my fair share of stress and only noticed grey hairs after I go sick with IBS 4 years ago.

  6. jeannine says:

    David Wolfe’s company, Longevity, cam eout with a product to reclaim your natural hair color. It’s called “Hairprint”.

  7. Tom T. says:

    At age 63, I have very little gray hair, mainly touches at the temples. My twin brother, however, has been gradually getting gray for decades, and now the difference is really obvious. If we’re not genetically identical, we’re so similar as to be hard to tell apart when young, so were assumed to be identical. Shall we volunteer for a study? A progressive doctor that I sometimes see blames most hair loss and graying on a lack of trace minerals.

  8. Larry Haynes says:

    I am frankly shocked. None of this information and commentary is accurate. In fact, none of us should ever have grey hair. Grey hair is caused by toxins. Indeed as noted fresh “Wheat Grass” juiced and consumed has helped virtually all whom have tried it, cleanse and see their hair return to it’s natural original color.

    What none of these geniuses ever does is explain the biologic coloring process of hair. Color is the last component to go into the hair as it grows beyond the surface of the scalp. When toxicity becomes too high, prevention of the coloring process begins.

    During the early 1990s I made my first visit to the edge of the rain forest in Brazil. I saw naive Indians in their late 70s with not a single grey hair on their head and perfect pearly white teeth. Why? Because it was extremely seldom that they consumed anything other than what we call a raw vegan diet. Possibly a couple of times a year for a tribal festival they might slaughter an animal and roast it to commemorate a wedding or other community high point but otherwise they were foragers. They ate a purely botanical diet…. fruits, nuts, herbs, vegetation etc…

    In my own experience, I went from no grey to 85% grey in a period of nine months having been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Once I had beaten the illness, I immediately went into a detox regimen. I drank 3 ounces of fresh squeezed wheat grass juice every morning. Often during the day I would drink some powdered wheat grass from health food stores. Day by day, I saw hair return to my natural color. I would notice clusters of hair in my face that would return to the original color and before shaving it would almost look like polka dots on my face. I noticed the hair on my chest returning to proper color. After four months of this wheat grass juice regimen, you would have been hard pressed to find a grey hair anywhere on me. That was in 2009. Today in 2015, six years later, some grey has shown up, telling me that I need to do some serious detox using wheat grass juice again.

    While I sometimes go through long periods of vegetarianism, I am not a vegan nor do I consider myself a proper vegetarian. If I were, I feel certain I would have effectively no grey hair. There is too much toxicity all around us. A requisite amount of it is going to get to us. Stay cleansed and you will always be healthier!

    • That’s an interesting position, and I can see where you’re coming from. But I beg to differ. Have you thought that the native Indians simply had a genetic predisposition towards not graying? Caucasian males tend to go gray and a most of us lose hair as we age too. In all the years I have met in this field I have met hundreds of raw vegans, including those living on what I would call an extremely pure diet, and I have not met a single one without some gray hair. Most of them actually went gray or white as you’d expect any other person of their ethnicity to do.

  9. BZ says:

    looking foward for them to get to the”ROOT” for gray hair.keep us posted.
    thanks for article

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