Study Finds That Stress Really Can Turn Your Hair Gray
History reports that Queen Marie Antoinette's hair turned white overnight during the French Revolution, and more than one parent has accused their children of being the cause of premature grays. But can stress really cause our hair to go gray?
In a paper published in Nature, Harvard scientists have found that they not only can confirm that stress can cause hair to turn gray or white, but they have also figured out the mechanisms that cause this change—and they have high hopes for the application of these results.
Does stress really make our hair turn gray?
In studies conducted on mice, researchers found that their hair did, in fact, turn gray when exposed to stress. The next step was to find out why.
"Everyone has an anecdote to share about how stress affects their body, particularly in their skin and hair—the only tissues we can see from the outside," said senior author Ya-Chieh Hsu, Ph.D. "We wanted to understand if this connection is true."
The process of confirming our suspicions about the impact of stress on our hair was no simple one. It required starting with considering our bodily responses overall before zeroing in on the molecular dynamics that cause these processes.
"To go from the highest level to the smallest detail, we collaborated with many scientists," said Bing Zhang, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, "using a combination of different approaches to solve a very fundamental biological question."
So what's the verdict?
In order to find out why this happens, researchers first had to isolate the system that links our hair to stress. They hypothesized that there was a cortisol link or that it was related to an immune attack on cells but found both of those premises to be false.
"Surprisingly," said Hsu, "when we removed the adrenal gland from the mice so that they couldn't produce cortisol-like hormones, their hair still turned gray under stress."
After much trial and error, scientists were able to link the graying of hair to the sympathetic nerve system, which controls our responses to stressful situations. The system releases a chemical, which is then taken up by the cells that manage color regeneration.
When we're stressed, this chemical process is prematurely activated, which depletes the stores of the color-giving compounds.
"After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost," explained Hsu. "Once they're gone, you can't regenerate pigment anymore. The damage is permanent."
What's next for research?
Finding a way to reverse the damage caused by stress on our hair isn't the primary next step of this research, as the more concerning aspect of the findings is the internal damage. Researchers do hope that this knowledge will help us understand the implications of stress on our other organs and tissues.
"By understanding precisely how stress affects stem cells that regenerate pigment, we've laid the groundwork for understanding how stress affects other tissues and organs in the body," Hsu said. "Understanding how our tissues change under stress is the first critical step towards eventual treatment that can halt or revert the detrimental impact of stress."
Researchers may be able to work on developing ways to modify or block the pathway that causes these changes altogether, thus alleviating the damaging impacts of stress.
Eliza Sullivan is an SEO Editor at mindbodygreen, where she writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She received a B.S. in journalism and B.A. in english literature with honors from Boston University, and she has previously written for Boston Magazine, TheTaste.ie, and SUITCASE magazine.