Can Stress Make Hair Turn Gray?

By:    Published: October 11, 2012

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Nearly everyone will develop gray hair at some point in their lives, though some will begin to gray as early as their teens, while others will not begin to gray until late in their 50s. This is mostly determined by genetics. There has always been a common belief that stress can turn a person's hair gray. Read on to find out if there is any validity to this popular theory.

Why Does Hair Turn Gray?

Hair grows from a teardrop shaped follicle. There are approximately 100,000 on the average human head and each is capable of creating several hairs throughout a person's life. At the bottom of each follicle, keratinocytes build each strand of hair by stacking keratin cells one on top of the other, which is what makes hair grow. These cells combined with melanocytes determine the color of a person's hair.

Melanocytes are responsible for the pigment in human hair and skin. There are two types of melanin in human hair:

  • Eumelanin: responsible for dark brown and black pigments.
  • Pheomelanin: responsible for yellow and red pigments.

These two pigments determine the rainbow of colors in human hair. But as a person ages, the hair begins to lose its pigment. A person with gray hair has lost most of the pigment, while someone with white hair has lost all of it. This is important because there are a number of factors that can cause hair to lose its pigment and at different rates.

The loss of color typically begins at the temples and progresses to the top of the scalp, though there is much variation to this. Body hair will also gray, but often not to the extent that the hair on the head grays.

Possible Correlation Between Stress And Gray Hair

A recent study by Duke University Medical Center suggests that stress could play more of a role in the graying of hair than originally thought. However, opponents of the study are quick to caution against jumping to conclusions.

The study was based on laboratory mice and found that when the animals were infused with an adrenaline-like compound to help simulate chronic stress, the animals experienced DNA damage at a rate that was higher than normal. The DNA damage can be looked at as a possible explanation for multiple conditions and disorders, including gray hair.

Opponents of the study's conclusions say that it is just too big of a credibility leap to assume that because stress resulted in DNA damage in laboratory mice that the same will happen in humans. Gray hair was also never examined during the study. There is, however, centuries of anecdotal evidence that stress does, in fact, cause hair to lose its color at an accelerated rate.

The study, out of Duke University, was not initially looking at the effects of stress on hair at all, but at whether or not increased adrenaline, which occurs under stressful conditions, causes damage to the body's DNA and whether or not it could be linked to diseases like cancer. That stress could cause melanocytes in hair to stop producing pigment was just a speculative conclusion.

The Duke study did find that increased levels of adrenaline caused a decrease in a protein called p53, which protects the DNA from damage and helps keep tumors from forming. However this wasn't linked to the loss of pigment in hair.

Other Changes As A Person Ages

As hair grays, other changes take place as well. The thickness of the hair shaft as well as the density of hair strands on the head change as well. As people age, the shaft of the hair becomes thinner as well as losing color. If stress plays a role in the graying of hair as anecdotal evidence suggests, then it could also play a role in the thinning of the hair.

The density of the hair on the scalp changes with age as well, with many people experiencing male pattern (see: Men’s Hair Loss) or female pattern baldness (see: Women’s Hair Loss). When it comes to stress, it is a well documented fact that stress can indeed cause hair loss, as can many medical conditions and some medications.

What Can Be Done About Gray Hair?

When it comes to hair turning gray, sadly there isn't anything that can be done to prevent hair from losing its pigmentation. It is just a natural part of the aging process. Those who believe their hair is becoming prematurely gray, there is always the option of hair dye. Hair dye is safe, inexpensive and can be done in the privacy of one's own home for those who don’t want to make a trip to a pricy hair salon.

Wigs are also an option, though they are more expensive, more labor intensive and some say they are less comfortable. Wigs do have the advantage of being made from human hair and they do offer a much greater variety of styles than one's own hair. If hair loss is also a problem, there are products on the market to help re-grow lost hair, but this hair will likely grow in gray since the products don't stimulate the production of melanocytes.

While stress may play a role in making hair turn gray, the scientific world is still on the proverbial fence. What is certain is that it is always a good idea to reduce the stress in one's life, because while it is known that stress causes a number of devastating affects within the body, it could possibly make a person look older too.

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