Even though aging is inevitable, certain parts of aging are unwelcome. Gray hair is no exception to that, many believe; looking at those who confidently rock their white or gray hair as a badge of wisdom with awe. Is the old saying that stress turns your hair gray accurate, or is it more about genetic predispositions?
A recent study at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons has mapped out the timeline of a single hair’s life cycle down to the hour. This has enabled them to look more closely at how stress affects the graying of hair, and they’ve found that it’s completely synchronized to psychological factors occurring in real-time.
The hair pigmentation on each strand goes through more than just the transition from natural color to gray or white. These tiny transitions that are imperceptible to the human eye became the focus of their study. Following participants who kept a diary of their stress levels, samples of their hair were plucked and microscopically sliced to reveal the varying pigments deposited on the strands and analyzed under a high-resolution scanner.
What was found on this analysis surprised the researchers, as they found some hairs that turned gray or white and then reverted back to their natural color! Taking a closer look at the stress diaries, they were able to correlate the change of hair to gray during times of stress down to a weekly basis, which was reversed when stress was reduced in some cases!
Gray hair has never been found to be reversible before. The researchers believe that gray hair is a response on the part of the mitochondria changing proteins which contribute to graying. They’re excited to be able to list stress as a culprit for gray hair which could be reversible if stress reduction is implemented.
That being said, going gray isn’t just a stress response; it has to occur within the right time of a largely genetic time-frame. The reversible graying occurred in people in middle age, where extra stress could put them over the edge into the time-frame for their hair to turn gray. They don’t believe that stress reduction will change any pigmentation for those who have been gray for many years and are older.
We now know stress does play a huge part in graying. There’s a ring of truth to the phrase you’re giving me gray hairs!—but if you’re looking to try bringing back a more youthful hair color, tone down the stress in middle age. It’s good for you, and your hair!
Ayelet M Rosenberg, Shannon Rausser, Junting Ren, et al. Quantitative mapping of human hair greying and reversal in relation to life stress. eLife, 2021; 10 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.67437