Popular culture and media has helped to spread the old adage that stress can cause greying of the hair, perpetuated by public figures under great deals of stress shifting from colored to grey hair in a few short years. As US President Barack Obama leaves ends his second term, his transformation is perhaps the most popular example in recent months.
While visual examples like this are hard to deny, researchers are not so quick to jump on the cause and effect bandwagon. Stress can lead to grey hair, but there is much more to the story.Whether your head of hair is nearly white, or it you’re freaking out about the first silver strands in the mirror, this article is definitely for you!
The Science of Grey Hair
Barring a pigment deficiency or other disorder that prevents your hair from being colored, everyone on the planet has color in their hair. This coloring process begins deep down in the follicles of the head, of which we have more than 100,000. At the base of our hair follicles, keratinocytes (skin cells) gradually build up the hair cells from the bottom up, explaining why hair goes gradually. While this construction process is occurring, melanocytes are also hard at work, producing a pigment called melanin and then delivering it to the keratinocytes.
This melanin pigment for hair comes in two varieties – brown/black and yellow/orange – and some combination of those color patterns results in the endless variety of hair shades we see in the world around us. However, keratincytes and melanocytes are far from immortal, and like most other parts of the body, they break down over time. Follicles only remain in production for periods of 2-7 years, and then they are shut down once the hair falls out.
The problem is, bringing in new melanocytes and keratinocytes requires tapping into our stem cell reserves, of which there is a limited amount that only survive a given amount of time. As it turns out, keratinocyte stem cells seem to have a longer shelf life than melanocyte stem cells, which is why people with grey/white hair keep having to get haircuts!
The crux of this article, however, is whether stress has an effect on this greying process, and that is where the discussion gets a bit confusing.
Genetics vs. Stress
There is no denying that some element of greying has to do with genetics, as early balding, early greying, and male pattern baldness have been shown as decidedly hereditary. The amount of stem cells, the number of hair-growing cycles per follicle, and a variety of other factors are influenced by our basic genetic make-up, which we can’t do much about.
However, stress is something that we can do something about in our lives. For those of you who don’t know, high and chronic levels of stress hormones in the body can be detrimental for a number of reasons, namely because stress hormones cause inflammation in the tissues and cells of the body. When it comes to keratinocytes and hair follicles, studies have shown that this inflammation can lead to excessive production of free radicals, which damage healthy cells or cause them to mutate. This could lead to the melanocytes ceasing to function or being inhibited – a strong link between stress and grey hair.
Stress hormones (things like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine) are not necessarily evil things in our body; in fact, we need stress hormones to activate certain muscle groups and provide boosts of energy when we need (the famous “adrenaline” rush), more commonly known as the “fight or flight” response of the body. However, when they remain in the body, they can interrupt the transmission of information, such as the neurochemical signals between keratinocytes and melanocytes. Melanin may be in production, but the signal pathways are impacted negatively by stress hormones, so the color is never delivered to the hair!
As we age, it is inevitable that our keratinocytes will naturally begin to die off or shut down, leaving a world of silver foxes and grey-haired goddesses; however, if you want to slow that inevitable fade to white, then cutting down on stress is definitely one way to stay young. If that doesn’t work, just keep your dance moves fresh.
See, not all urban legends are myths… just ask Barack Obama next time you see him, if you can still recognize him, that is!