Does Stress Really Make Your Hair Go Gray?

By: Molly Edmonds & Sarah Gleim  | 

POTUS Obama, Bush and Clinton
Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all went gray during their eight-year terms. Was it the stress of the most powerful job in the world? Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Though a little stress can be good for you, too much 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 affect our appearance. It can cause our 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 our hair gray? There's probably no job more stressful than president of the United States. And U.S. presidents — from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama — have been subjected to before-and-after comparisons showing how the world's most stressful job can take its toll on hair.

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Even Marie Antoinette supposedly showed up for her date with the guillotine with gray hair. Onlookers believed that her hair color changed overnight as she stressed about her fate. Though in her case, the sudden graying was likely because she wasn't wearing a wig, which was common in 18th-century France.

And those presidents? Well, Clinton had salt-and-pepper hair when he entered the office at age 46; it was pretty much white when he left at age 54. Bush had a solid head of gray after his eight years in office too [source: Willingham]. And Obama entered his eight years with dark black hair. After his term ended that black hair was totally salt-and-pepper.

But in most people, stress isn't the cause of graying. Our hair starts to turn gray naturally between the ages of 30 and 35, and things like genetics play a role when it starts. But why does our hair go gray at all?

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Why Hair Goes Gray

woman going gray
When and whether you go gray depends a lot on your genetics, though several studies have tied graying to stress. Grace Cary/Getty Images

Your head contains hundreds of thousands of follicles, and each follicle is charged with producing one hair. Before hair emerges, other cells known as melanocytes determine the hair's pigment. Once a hair's color is set, it's set.

When our hair turns gray, it's because of reduced amounts of melanin, and when hair is completely white, it's because it lacks melanin altogether. That's partly because of we lose the amount of stem cells that can become melanin-producing cells. But why?

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Scientists aren't exactly sure. It could be those stem cells wear out or they become damaged. The support systems that help keep them working could also fail. But our hair follicles also simply produce less color as we/they age. So it makes sense that as each strand of hair dies and falls out and new strands regenerate in their place, their color will be lighter over time.

Genetics and Graying

But when — and if — you go gray is mostly influenced by your parents, as our genetics seem to have the most control over what comes out of each hair follicle. Scientists have been trying for decades to determine what's happening with our genes and cells when hair goes gray. Not only because they want to solve the mysteries of gray hair, but also 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 that 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 they have no effect on the hair [source: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute].

The results of a 2009 Japanese study published in the journal Cell indicated that stress can 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.

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.

Remove the Stress, Reverse the Gray?

But a small 2021 study from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons is the first with measurable evidence that links everyday stress to gray hair — and says it's even reversible. The researchers analyzed individual hairs from 14 volunteers. They compared the results with the volunteer's "stress diary," in which they tracked and rated their weekly level of stress. The researchers were surprised to discover that hair color was restored in some participants when stressors were eliminated.

"Understanding the mechanisms that allow 'old' gray hairs to return to their 'young' pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human aging in general and how it is influenced by stress," study senior author Martin Picard, Ph.D., said in a press statement. Picard is an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University. "Our data add to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that human aging is not a linear, fixed biological process but may, at least in part, be halted or even temporarily reversed."

Take that, gray hair!

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Originally Published: Jul 29, 2009

Lots More Information

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