Does Stress Cause Grey Hair?

In our humble view, all hair colors are beautiful. Whether you want to wear your natural hair color or experiment with hair dye, highlights, or even temporary color-depositing masks, there's often a connection between our natural hair (its color, style, texture, among other characteristics) and our identity. Something about grey hair, on the other hand, really gets folks going. If you've ever noticed a stray grey strand on your head, you may have been taken aback. Do you take it out? Do you dismiss it? Do you shave it? Worst of all, where the heck did it come from in the first place?

You've certainly heard your parents say, "you're giving me grey hairs" at some point after you've stressed them out, but is that remark true? Is it really true that stress causes grey hair?

First things first: What causes grey hair?

Natural pigments in your skin called melanin are used to define your hair color when you are born. "Human hair follicles contain two types of melanin: pheomelanin and eumelanin," says licensed physician Leann Poston. "The production ratio of these two forms of melanin accounts for the wide range of possible hair colors."

"Grey hair is caused by the reduction [and] subsequently entire loss of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes inside the hair follicle," explains certified trichologist William Gaunitz, WTS. These cells can die or be eliminated due to a variety of circumstances, but they most typically die off naturally as we age. As these cells die, leaving the hair without melanin for color, new hair strands become lighter and eventually turn grey, white, or silver.  

Melanocytes frequently stop making melanin as you age, which is why grey hair is so common in the elderly. However, it is usual for hair to begin greying around the age of 35. Overall, Poston believes that a mix of factors, including genetics, hormones, and your environment, will influence when your hair greys.

Factors That Impact How Early Your Hair Turns Grey

Grey hair is a natural component of the aging process and will inevitably emerge at some time in your life. However, due to a variety of variables, the process may begin earlier for some than for others. Some of them are avoidable, but many are not.

Grey Hair and Genes

The average age for grey hair varies widely, and genetics is one of the most common reasons for grey hair in your twenties. The IRF4 gene influences the age at which a person's hair becomes grey, and one specific mutation (rs12203592) is a marker for premature greying, primarily influencing the activity of melanocyte precursor cells.

As a result, for the most part, you may blame your grey hair on your parents and grandparents. The major (and most scientifically sound) cause of grey hair is genetics. This is especially true if you start greying before the age of 20, which is known as premature greying.

If your parents started getting grey hair at a young age, chances are you will, too—and there's nothing you can really do about it.

Race also influences how quickly your hair greys. Grey hair, for example, appears early in Caucasians but later in Asians. African Americans may also become grey later in life, with the average grey strand emerging around the age of 43.

Stress may cause grey hair prematurely

Though stress does not cause grey hair, there is some evidence that it may hasten the greying process.

In one 1972 study, for example, the late dermatologist Stanley Comaish described an encounter with a 38-year-old man who possessed a "most unusual feature." Despite the fact that the majority of the individual's hair was either all black or all white, three strands were light near the ends but dark near the roots. This indicated a reversal of the normal greying process, which starts at the root.

Another study published in the journal eLife discovered that stress has a major influence on when hair greys, but that relaxing can reverse the trend.

Researchers at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons came to these conclusions after examining the individual hairs of 14 volunteers and comparing them to stress diaries kept by each of them.

The method they employed is analogous to examining the rings of a tree: The scientists were able to identify a correlation between periods of stress and times of greying in the hair by looking at a tiny section of each human hair, which reflected around an hour of hair growth. Not only that, but they discovered that periods of relaxation were associated with previously grey hair darkening.

"There was one participant who went on vacation, and five strands of hair on that person's head reverted back to dark throughout the vacation, synchronized in time," said Martin Picard, Ph.D. associate professor of behavioral medicine, in a press statement. "Just like the rings in a tree trunk store information about previous decades in a tree's existence, our hair stores information about our biological history."

This research found that periods of high stress or relaxation were associated with greying or reversal. The authors point out that hair re-pigmentation is only attainable in a subset of people of a specific age.

The findings of yet another 2020 study led by Harvard University's Dr. Ya-Chieh Hsu make this very evident. The study utilized mice to investigate the potential link between stress and hair greying, subjecting them to a variety of physical and psychological stressors. The outcomes of the study revealed that all of the mice subjected to stress had a substantial decrease of melanocyte stem cells, resulting in more visible hair greying. The study's findings also show that the same sympathetic nerve response that activates our fight-or-flight reaction may play a significant role in stress-induced greying.

The findings are significant because they demonstrate how ubiquitous the influence of stress on the body is. While the fight or flight reaction is life-saving, it can have negative consequences if activated too frequently. A great deal of research has been conducted on the many mechanisms of stress and the procedures that can be taken to prevent its self-destructive tendencies.

Here is a list of simple steps you can perform on your own to reduce stress:

1. Practice deep breathing: Take some time out of your busy day to slow down by taking deep, purposeful breaths. This will reduce your anxiety, lower your heart rate, and help you put things into perspective as you focus more on yourself.

2. Exercise in a sustainable way: Make working out a habit; it doesn't have to be something strenuous like weightlifting. Even a short, brisk walk or 20 minutes of yoga will boost your mood, improve your sleep, and make you feel more balanced.

3. Listen to your favorite songs: Music is therapeutic because it has the ability to distract and distract you away from your surroundings. It also reduces activity in the amygdala, which is the center of the brain that handles fear and other emotions. In other words, listening to music that you enjoy puts your mind in a more relaxed condition.

4. Progressive muscle relaxation: You can attempt this at home when you're in bed or at work while you're stuck at your desk. Concentrate on a certain body part and tense it for at least 10 seconds. Then let go gradually. It is an excellent method for relaxing and reducing stress.

5. Follow your creative impulse: If you enjoy writing, try your hand at drawing, sketching, painting, or even journaling. Don't be concerned about being a great artist; simply allow your mind to wander on the canvas. Activities in which you are in charge may make you feel better about yourself and soothe your nerves.

Your Health and Hair Greying

As if you needed another reason to choose fruits and vegetables over chips and salsa, poor nutrition can produce nutritional deficiencies that can lead to grey hair.

Greying may be caused by a lack of the nutrients listed below:

  • Zinc (beans, red meat, poultry)
  • Protein (dairy, fish, poultry, nuts)
  • Copper (seeds, shellfish, and nuts)
  • Vitamin B12 (eggs, fish, poultry, milk)
  • Iron (fortified cereals, seafood, nuts, beans)

Greying is also linked to unhealthy habits such as alcohol intake and smoking. Preventing grey hair is only one of many reasons to take care of your body, eat properly, and finally stop those bad habits.

Grey hairs can occasionally be a symptom of sicknesses, such as thyroid disease or alopecia areata (a common autoimmune disorder). Inform your healthcare physician if you notice any other tell-tale indicators, such as balding patches. However, don't be alarmed—these are uncommon and pose minimal risk.

Preventing What You Can and Embracing What You Can't

Our hair is one of the most underappreciated yet essential elements of our body. Because it sets the tone, our hair may enhance our personalities and is an important component of our overall appearance. Finding your first grey hair can be surprising, and this is a perfectly normal reaction. While it's important to keep your body as healthy as possible (for reasons other than hair color), keep in mind that grey hair is typical as you get older.

It's important to do what makes you happy and confident, whether you color your hair or go for the silver vixen look. Everyone will turn grey at some point, but it is entirely up to you how you react to those silver threads.

Specific health conditions, such as premature greying, hair loss, and brittle hair, can all have an effect on your hair. Thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies may not be evident, but doctors are trained to detect subtle signs and symptoms. Grey hair could conceivably be reversed with a trip to the doctor's office rather than the hair salon with a better understanding of the physiological underpinnings of color loss.

If you’re concerned about hair greying or hair loss in general, please don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Feinberg and his team at the Hair Restoration Center of New York and New Jersey today. It’s easy to request an appointment for a stress-free consultation