Found Another Gray Hair? Here's What It Means For Your Health

Photo: Jose Coello

Finding a couple of gray hairs here and there is par for the course as we age, but is going gray early cause for concern? The holistic and integrative doctors weighed in and all agreed with a resounding yes.

Genetics is the No. 1 factor determining when you go gray.

They all agree that genetics is the No. 1 cause for gray hair. "The root cause of gray hairs is multivariable including genetics," said mbg class instructor, New York Times best-selling author, and hormone expert Sara Gottfried, M.D. "The downstream result is that the melanocytes (pigment cells) in the hair follicle slowly die, leaving hair a more transparent color like gray, silver, or white," she said.

Felice Gersch, M.D., OB-GYN and women's hormone expert, agreed. "Eventually everyone will get gray hair—if they grow old! There have been studies looking at the relationship of age-related risks and graying of hair, and there has been documentation of a correlation," she said. "A family history of premature graying is common, and studies show a 12-fold increased incidence of premature graying with a family history."

Prudence Hall, M.D., who is known for taking a regenerative and integrative approach with her clientele, believes that genetics can inform when we go gray but that we're empowered to beat the odds. "Even though gray hair can be genetically determined, we know we are not at the mercy of our genes," she said. "We can actually turn off and on our genes through hormonal balance, enzyme production, control of inflammation, stress, lifestyle, and diet."

Going gray early on can signal stress, vitamin deficiencies, and/or inflammation in the body.

Like the skin, hair is a reflection of our inner health. Going gray isn't "bad" in and of itself, but it could signal that something's off internally. "Most people in their 40s start to notice a few gray hairs, but premature graying more diffusely makes me think of thyroid dysfunction or vitamin B12 deficiency," said Dr. Gottfried. And FYI—getting a substantial number of gray hairs (not just a few here or there) before your forties is considered premature.

It's also worth noting that quantity does matter, most likely. "More grays signify possibly more oxidative stress involving the pigment-making cells in the hair follicle, the melanocytes," said Dr. Gersch. "Melanocytes utilize a great deal of energy to make hair pigment and therefore can reveal early stages of oxidative stress more readily than other cell types."

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What to do if you're going prematurely gray.

Don't get us wrong—we love a beautiful silver mane. But if you suspect your gray hairs are the result of prolonged stress, vitamin deficiencies, or an indicator of a disease that runs in your family, it's time to take a closer look at your health. Here are a few doctor-recommended next steps if you think your gray hair might be trying to tell you something:

1. Get a checkup.

"Early graying is linked to elevated oxidative stress (a state of inflammation), coronary artery disease, thickening of the lining (the intima) of the carotid artery, smoking, obesity, and psychosocial stress," said Dr. Gersch. For patients graying prematurely who have a family history of cancer, dementia, and heart disease, she recommends getting a checkup that includes blood work to check the status of cardiac health, lipids and inflammation markers, thyroid, nutrition, sleep, and stress.

2. Try digestive enzymes.

"I love enzymes, as they keep all cells healthy including the hair follicles," said Dr. Hall, who recommends slowing the graying process and supporting healthy hair growth with digestive enzymes. "Systemic enzymes decrease inflammation, which slows the aging process."

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3. Ease up on grains.

"[E]liminating grains and gluten can also help decrease inflammation, as does maintaining a healthy digestive tract," Dr. Hall said.

4. Make sure you're getting enough sleep.

Since sleep is when the body processes, detoxifies, and rejuvenates, both Dr. Hall and Dr. Gersch recommend getting more sleep or taking an honest shut-eye assessment. Getting the right amount of sleep for your body can help prevent aging, keeping cells young and healthy.

5. Supplement for your deficiencies.

Dr. Hall suggests eating four Brazil nuts daily to boost selenium, which can help keep the hair healthy. Some research shows that B12 helps slow down the graying process as well; 1,000 to 2,000 mcg per day is standard. Additionally, hormone health is strongly linked to hair health. Replacing declining estrogen as we age helps maintain healthy hair, which translates to DHEA and pregnenolone. Check with your doctor to see if supplementing to revive depleted stores of DHEA and pregnenolone is right for you.

Want to know more about beauty supplements? Here's the lowdown on biotin and collagen peptides—and whether they're worth it.

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