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Does Stress Turn Hair Gray?

Does Stress Turn Hair Gray?
No one likes to look in the mirror and see those first strands of gray. At the first signs of gray hair, some head to a hair salon to color the gray, while others learn to live with it or even show their gray hair off.
Hair gets its color from a pigment called melanin, which is produced by cells called melanocytes. With age, the melanocytes produce less melanin, resulting in hair that contains less pigment and appears gray, white, or silver. Let's look at the science behind this phenomenon and look at whether stress is a cause of gray hair.
Why Does Hair Turn Gray?
Although gray hair comes from a reduction in the melanin pigment that gives hair its color, it's also related to a decline in stem cells. As time goes by, you produce fewer stem cells responsible for repairing and replacing damaged cells in your body. The cells play a key role in the production of melanin. When there is a decrease in the number of stem cells, hair follicles may not produce enough melanin to give the hair its typical color.
Genetic factors and the aging process contribute to the loss of stem cells that produce melanin and gray hair. If you have relatives who went gray early in life, you may be at higher risk for doing so. In some families, people turn gray as early as their 20s or 30s.
Can Stress Cause Your Hair to Gray Early?
At one time, researchers believed that hair turning gray due to stress was an old wive's tale. But more recent research suggests there's some truth to this idea. They now believe that stress may not directly cause hair to turn gray but may be a contributing factor.
Research shows that high levels of stress can weaken the immune system, leading to inflammation and possibly speeding up the aging process. When you're stressed, your adrenal glands (small glands above your kidneys) release norepinephrine, a stress hormone that increases your heart rate and opens your blood vessels, giving you more blood flow to fight or flee from an enemy. 
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that stress also releases norepinephrine into the hair follicles, and this can alter melanin-producing stem cells and affect the production of melanin by the hair follicles, leading to gray hair at an earlier age.
The relationship between stress and hair graying is not fully understood, and more research is needed to fully understand the link.
Is Gray Hair Due to Stress Reversible?
Once you've damaged the stem cells that produce melanin, they're gone, and pigment production slows or stops. You can't return gray hair to its more youthful state or stop your hair from graying, but you have options for covering it. These include:
  • Hair dye: This is the most common method for covering up gray hair. There are many types of hair dyes available, ranging from semi-permanent to permanent, and in various colors.
  • Highlighting: This involves adding streaks of lighter color to your hair, which can help blend gray hairs and give the appearance of a fuller head of hair.
  • Hair toner: This is a temporary coloring treatment used to neutralize unwanted yellow or brassy tones in the hair. It can also help blend gray hairs.
You could have other options in the future. A recent study involving mice showed that manipulating certain genes can potentially prevent or reduce gray hair. The researchers focused on three specific genes that help maintain a stable number of melanin-producing cells, those responsible for giving hair its color. While the study is promising, there are currently no products available based on this research.
But don't fret! Gray and ashy hair are trendy nowadays among young people. Some are even coloring their hair gray because they like the look. So, don't curse those gray hairs; show them off!
It's not an old wive's tale. The stress hormones that your adrenals release in response to stress may play a role in turning your hair gray. So, if you don't want gray hair, work on stress management! 
Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells. Zhang B, Ma S, Rachmin I, He M, Baral P, Choi S, Gonçalves WA, Shwartz Y, Fast EM, Su Y, Zon LI, Regev A, Buenrostro JD, Cunha TM, Chiu IM, Fisher DE, Hsu YC. Nature. 2020 Jan;577(7792):676-681. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-1935-3. Epub 2020 Jan 22. PMID: 31969699.
Family Health Team. Why Hair Turns Gray. Cleveland Clinic. Published April 12, 2021. Accessed January 2, 2023.://