Though a little stress can be good for you, an overabundance of it has been linked with a host of dangerous health conditions, including heart disease, headaches, stomach problems, sleep disorders and a compromised immune system, to name just a few. Stress can also have an effect on our personal appearance -- it can cause skin to break out with acne or psoriasis and trigger conditions like telogen effluvium or alopecia areata, both of which cause chunks of hair to fall out.
But can stress turn hair gray faster, as an old wives' tale would have you believe? Onlookers were shocked when Marie Antoinette showed up for her date with the guillotine with gray hair; it was believed that her hair color changed overnight as she stressed about her fate. Every U.S. president in recent times has been subjected to a before-and-after treatment purporting to show how the world's most stressful job can take its toll.
In the case of the French queen, the sudden graying was likely due to wig removal or lack of access to hair dye. And since current U.S. President Barack Obama's barber swears that the president has never used hair dye, it's more likely that we're seeing the signs of normal aging; about 50 percent of 50-year-olds are halfway on their way to gray [source: Parker-Pope]. Gray hairs usually start appearing between the ages of 30 and 35, but the rate of graying differs according to factors like race (white people tend to go gray before Asian or black people).
Since stress causes hair loss, it's possible that losing some pigmented hair can make those gray hairs more noticeable. In this article, however, we're interested in whether stress can cause a hair to grow out from the root as gray or white. Before we get delve into some current theories on this process, let's review why our hair has color at all.
Our heads contain hundreds of thousands of follicles, and each follicle is charged with producing one hair. Cells known as keratinocytes build the keratin that becomes our hair (our skin and fingernails are also composed of keratin). Before hair emerges from the follicle, though, other cells known as melanocytes inject a pigment called melanin into the keratin. When our hair turns gray, it's due to lowered amounts of melanin, and when hair is completely white, our hair lacks melanin altogether. But why do our cells stop producing melanin as we age? And should we remain in our homes at all times, free from any form of stress, to prevent the process from happening faster?
Why Hair Goes Gray
There is no direct link between stress and gray hair. Rather, if you want to figure out when you'll go gray, you need look no further than your parents, as our genes seem to have power over what comes out of each hair follicle. In recent years, though, scientists have been digging a little deeper to determine what's happening with our genes and cells when hair goes gray. Not because they want to solve the mysteries of gray hair, but rather because our hair might reveal information that's useful in treating other conditions related to aging.
In 2004, for example, researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston were studying melanoma, which involves an overproduction of melanocytes in the skin, which can lead to skin cancer. While trying to learn more about the nature of melanocytes, the researchers found that hair might go gray as the supply of melanocyte stem cells is depleted. Even before those stem cells are completely gone, though, they begin to make errors, such as depositing the pigment at the wrong place in the follicle, so that it has no effect on the hair [source: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute]. The next task for these researchers? Figuring out why the amount of melanocyte stem cells decrease when it comes to our hair while they reproduce at high levels in the skin and form cancerous tumors.
The results of a 2009 Japanese study indicated that stress did in fact cause gray hair, but not the type of stress that comes with a teenage driver or an impending job interview. Rather, researchers found that genotoxic stress, in the form of ultraviolet light and chemicals, damages our DNA and could cause the depletion of those melanocyte stem cells. Again, this finding holds promise for other conditions, as the same thing has been demonstrated to occur in blood stem cells and cardiac and skeletal muscle [source: Cell Press]. Though research seems to indicate that we could stop the DNA damage by removing the genotoxic stress, the researchers estimate that just one mammalian cell is subjected to 100,000 such stressors in one day, making complete avoidance impossible [source: Dell'Amore].
One last theory about graying hair ignores the stem cells altogether. In 2009, European researchers claimed that hair goes gray because the amount of hydrogen peroxide in our follicles builds up over time [source: Parker-Pope]. Their next step is figuring out if stress can increase these hydrogen peroxide levels or if it's driven by chemicals. Even if there is a link between the hydrogen peroxide build-up and stress, researchers caution that it all goes back to those genes from your parents. Our abilities to handle large amounts of stress may in fact be wired into our genes, meaning that where gray hair is concerned, there may be no way of escaping your genetic destiny.
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