We’ve all heard someone say that their spouse or kids are giving them gray hair. Is it an old wives’ tale? Going gray is a natural part of aging, but there has been plenty of evidence to suggest that stress can speed up the process.
Stress can cause people to lose the color in their hair, and a group of scientists at Harvard University has discovered why. The researchers say stress activates nerves that are part of the fight-or-flight response, which in turn causes permanent damage to the pigment-regenerating stem cells in hair follicles. When people are stressed, their system releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which primes the body for action. Researchers discovered that norepinephrine damages the stem cells which help regenerate color within the hair follicles. As a result, stress can possibly turn hair gray.
Gray or white hair is the result of a lack of pigmentation. Researchers found hair follicles have a reservoir of stem cells that can be converted into pigment cells when new hairs form. However, the reservoir is limited.
According to Ya-Chiech Hsu, a cellular biologist at Harvard University, “Everyone has an anecdote to share about how stress affects their body, particularly in their skin and hair – the only tissues we can see from the outside.” Understanding how stress affects stem cells, which are involved in all cells of the body, from skin cells to blood cells, and hair cells, could provide clues about how to better cope with stress and even aging. Hsu says, “Hair color is an excellent starting point because hair is so visible and easily accessible. But different stem cells and different organs may respond to the nervous system very differently, and more research is needed.”
Gray is not all bad, some people even dye their hair silver to join the “gray is gorgeous” fashion club.