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Can Stress Actually Make Us Go Gray?

Anxiety can make us want to pull our hair out— especially if we find some gray in there. But what’s the science behind stress and going gray?
Can Stress Actually Make Us Go Gray?
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From the legendary story of Marie Antoinette’s hair turning white overnight to the press coverage of Obama’s graying temples, the link between stress and gray hair has been a longtime concern. While some scientists blame the salt and pepper look on genetics alone, others suggest stress can send us straight to the salon A stress response pathway regulates DNA damage through β2-adrenoreceptors and β-arrestin-1. Hara, M.R, Kovacs, J.J, Whalen, E.J, et al. Department of Medicine, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina. Nature, 2011;477(7364):349-53..

Touch of Gray — Why It Matters

 

Since going gray is part of the normal biological aging process, even fans of ohm-ing the stress away are bound to sport the silver eventually. Gray hair usually appears around the big 4-0, when the body stops supplying strands with melanin, the pigment that gives hair its color Graying: gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmentary unit. Tobin, D.J., Paus, R. Experimental Gerontology, 2001;36(1):29-54.. Environmental factors like oxidative stress can also zap the color from those tresses. Oxidative stress occurs when the body can’t defend itself from dangerous particles in the atmosphere. So chemicals, ultraviolet light, and other damaging agents attack the DNA inside hair follicle stem cells, and the result can be colorless locks. But when most people talk about stress, they’re referring to the kind that comes from looming deadlines, a tight cash flow, and relatives that drive us crazy. That kind of stress may be another culprit behind the Grandpa hairdo…

Gray Matter — The Answer/Debate

The issue is anything but black and white: Health experts disagree on how much of a role stress plays in the graying process. Some researchers say worry on, since psychological stress has nothing do with going gray. Others claim genetics largely predict who goes gray when, but that frazzled feeling may also be a factor. (Mental health day, anyone?) Still, there’s some evidence stress can speed up the fade-out. In one study, doctors claimed patients under stress experienced accelerated graying. And other research, conducted on mice, suggests stress triggers biological changes that can cause hair to turn gray (before the experiment, the rodents were starring in these commercials). The science is tricky — some researchers think chronic stress makes the body more vulnerable to DNA damage, causing problems that range from gray hair to malignant tumors A stress response pathway regulates DNA damage through β2-adrenoreceptors and β-arrestin-1. Hara, M.R, Kovacs, J.J, Whalen, E.J, et al. Department of Medicine, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina. Nature, 2011;477(7364):349-53.. And worrywarts have yet another reason to freak out. Stress can cause conditions like telogen effluvium that make hair fall out — and the bald look doesn’t exactly work for everyone.

But there may be a shiny, pigmented light at the end of the tunnel. Currently, a group of German scientists is working to develop the first-ever topical cream that reverses the hydrogen peroxide build-up that makes us go grey . The revolutionary cream treatment would also cure vitiligo, a condition in which the skin loses melanin and white patches appear on the skin, hair, and eyes.

For the time being, though, the best solution for those concerned about preserving their lovely locks is to chill out . After all, stressing out about a strand or two might only make things worse.

Photo by Marissa Angell.

Have you found your first gray hair? (Eek!) Tell is whether or not you think stress is to blame. 

Originally published December 2012. Updated May 2013

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