Stress really does turn your hair grey

Caroline Allen
Contributor
Women generally start going grey at age 35. Photo: Getty

New research has found that stress really does turn your hair grey.

It’s a common expression used to denote stressful periods in our lives, but up until now we didn’t realise the whole ‘it’s turning my hair grey’ phrase held any scientific backing.

Stress can reduces pigment-forming stem cells that give our hair its colour, the research discovered.

Senior author Professor Ya-Chieh Hsu, a regenerative biologist at Harvard University, decided to undertake experiments in a bid to find out if “the connection is true”.

Stress reduces pigment-forming stem cells. [Photo: Getty]

There are a number of case studies throughout history that have thought to prove this myth.

It’s said that Marie Antoinette's hair turned white the night before she was beheaded during the French Revolution.

In more recent times, it’s hard not to compare Prime Ministers of the UK before and after their time at Downing Street.

Both Tony Blair and Theresa May got greyer during their time in highly stressful jobs. Even former US President Barack Obama joked about it.

Theresa May added to her grey's during her stint as PM. Photos: AP

Women begin to go grey aged 35, with men greying - on average - five years earlier.

There are plenty of factors that come into play, though. Your genetics will play a big role in whether your hair turns grey and so will your overall health. Now, stress levels are likely to be considered, too.

Some people will go grey at school while others will never see a grey hair in their lives.

It happens when hair follicles lose melanin, a pigment which helps to grow coloured hair cells.

These pigments are put risk of regenerating when you’re under pressure, because they themselves are put under pressure by the sympathetic nerve system - which is responsible for our fight or flight response.

“When we started to study this, I expected that stress was bad for the body - but the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined,” Professor Hsu explained.

He went on to explain that once the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost, they’re gone forever.

The fight or flight response is a very handy response to stress that keeps us safe. This is perhaps one of the only negative side effects of it.

The study forms the beginning of a long journey to find an intervention for people who turn grey prematurely and who don’t want to have grey hair.

“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,” Professor Hsu added.

“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. We still have a lot to learn in this area.”

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