You’ve probably heard the phrase umpteen times. “You’re giving me grey hairs”. While this phrase is meant to make the offending party feel guilty for adding more stress to a person’s already complicated life, you may have wondered if there’s any truth to this association between stress and grey hair. Can stress really cause grey hairs to form earlier than expected?
The association between stress and grey hair isn’t necessarily a simple one. Your hair has the natural color you were born with because of the activity of special cells known as melanocytes. These cells produced a pigmented molecule known as melanin which gives hair its rich, vibrant color. As long as the melanocytes are successfully pumping out melanin, hair retains its natural, genetically determined color, whether that be brown, black, or the less common shades of red or blonde. As you might expect, people with darker shades of hair have melanocytes that produce more melanin than those with fairer hair.
As you age so do your melanocytes, and at some point they stop producing melanin which causes grey hairs to form. While you may see the hair as being grey when contrasted with the rest of your head, they’re actually colorless due to the lack of pigment. You may have heard people complaining of premature greying. This phenomenon is usually genetically determined. If you look back through that person’s family, you’re likely to find other family members who experienced loss of hair pigment at an early age, sometimes as early as high school.
So what about the issue of stress and grey hair? While it’s never been proven that stress causes grey hair, chronic stress can lead to changes in the levels of certain hormones such as cortisol which cause a chronic inflammatory state. When chronic inflammation occurs, there can be formation of free radicals which could prematurely damage the pigment producing melanocytes. This could theoretically, according to some scientists, cause grey hairs to form earlier than genetically expected.
Is there any support for this theory for stress and grey hair? Although there are no large studies addressing this issue, one small retrospective study carried out at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore showed that patients who had undergone several years of unusual stress reported that their hair turned grey more rapidly during that period. While this is hardly a strong scientific endorsement, it does suggest that stress could potentially speed up the natural, genetically determined process of premature greying.
Are stress and grey hair related? Some members of the medical and scientific community seem to think so, although there’s no hard evidence. The answer, at least at this point, seems to be a definite “maybe”.