Can stress make your hair turn gray?
Gray hairs have long been associated with stress. But could the stress of the global COVID-19 pandemic be causing us to go gray prematurely?
New research out of Harvard University, funded by the National Institutes of Health, says stress can cause hair to gray prematurely by affecting the stem cells responsible for regenerating hair pigment.
These findings give insights for future research into how stress affects stem cells and tissue regeneration.
As a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, I find this research insightful, but not surprising. Skin is the largest organ of our body, and hair is a subcomponent of it. I primarily care for skin conditions of cancer patients. I treat drug rashes and hair loss from cancer treatments, monitoring for skin cancers in high-risk patients.
Stress can have a negative effect on our bodies. It can change how our body chemically regulates itself. It can alter our hormones, raise cortisone levels and change how our nervous system works.
And, yes, stress can make our hair turn gray.
A study that appeared in Nature in January showed that the hair of mice turned gray after they were exposed to stress. Researchers pinpointed the cause to the sympathetic nervous system.
This system directs the body’s involuntary responses to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. It’s our flight-or-fight response, something we can’t control.
The response creates an organic chemical in our body called noradrenaline, which is released from the ends of our sympathetic nerves.
This chemical can kill melanocytes, the cells responsible for the color our hair. Once those stem cells are gone, they can’t be replaced.
Our hair goes gray normally over time in our lives. Pigment cells regenerate over and over until they fatigue and eventually stop, causing the pool of cells to shrink.
But stress can speed up the process, causing someone to gray prematurely.
The key to keeping your hair its normal color before its due time is to keep stress levels down.
Stress modification is helpful, even necessary: There are no commercially available treatments to keep stem cells alive.
Here’s how this all works: The skin has three layers, the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat layer called the hypodermis. Our sweat glands, oil glands and hair follicles live deeper in the skin, in the dermis.
The hair follicles are sensitive to stressors on the body, which can impact cycles of hair growth. Physical stress could be caused by surgery, pregnancy, changes in hormone levels when you go on and off medication, and thyroid issues.
Skin and hair function well when people are healthy and have a balanced diet and use sun protection.
So, if you’d like to keep your natural hair color for as long as you can, try to limit your stress levels. Follow the CDC’s guidelines: Pause and breathe: take breaks from your work; make time to sleep and exercise; reach out and stay connected; and seek help if you feel overwhelmed or unsafe.
Brittany Dulmage is a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Ohio State College of Medicine.