It seems like common knowledge or conventional wisdom: stress can turn your hair gray.
Whether it’s the kids, your spouse, your job, or something else, people with gray hair have been blaming stress for centuries.
The example of Barack Obama is often cited: his hair was quite dark when first elected president, but by the time he’d completed his second term, it was much grayer. Clearly it was the stress of his job, right?
Not so fast! As I wrote in a previous post, the notion that stress makes you gray may be largely myth. Certainly, there are factors other than stress that lead to graying, not the least of which are genetics and age. And plenty of people under significant stress never go gray.
Keep in mind that an individual strand of hair does not change color (unless it’s dyed). When we see someone going gray, it’s usually because strands of hair with color (pigment) have fallen out and hairs without pigment have grown in their place. When a large enough number of unpigmented hairs grow in, the change is noticeable, and a head of hair appears to turn gray. Typically, this happens because pigment-producing cells within hair follicles produce less color over time. While graying commonly starts during middle age, genetics plays a role in when it begins.
What is stress anyway?
While it’s a popular and well-accepted notion that stress is bad for your health, if you’re facing a charging tiger, the body’s response to this sudden (acute) stress can be lifesaving. Your heart races, blood pressure and blood sugar rise, blood vessels in your muscles dilate, along with other physiologic reactions that prepare you to fight or flee (and in this case, I’d recommend the latter).
And while chronic stress may have negative health consequences, different people respond to the same stressors differently. In fact, it can be hard to define stress: what one person finds terrifying and unpleasant (for example, public speaking) another person may find exciting and energizing.
Maybe it’s true after all: A new study finds stress can turn hair gray
You may have seen news reports about a new study suggesting that stress can turn hair gray and sorts out how it happens. But there’s one important caveat: the study was performed in mice whose fur turned gray within a few days of their being injected with resiniferatoxin (a substance similar to the active, irritating ingredient in chili peppers). Whether the findings apply to humans is not yet known, but this research does provide a scientifically plausible explanation of how it might happen.
In the January 22, 2020, edition of Nature, researchers describe a series of experiments suggesting that in mice, sudden stress leads to the following sequence of events:
- Stimulation of nerves causes the adrenal gland to increase production and release of norepinephrine,