Anna Gragert
November 23, 2015 8:26 pm

During a particularly stressful time in your life, you may exclaim, “Ugh! All this stress is going to give me gray hair!” But is that an actual thing that happens, or is it just folklore?

We’ve seen it happen to people who are in extremely stressful positions — i.e., the President of the United States — but is it stress that’s causing their hair to transform? Or is it genetics? Are we already predisposed to gray hair? Is there a science behind gray hair?

“The way people are built, our hair is designed to have color for 45 or 50 years,” explained Dr. Tyler Cymet, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine’s chief of clinical education. Many other experts agree that our bodies essentially have a built-in timer that signals when it’s time for us to start going gray. This innate clock also has a name: melanocyte. Melanocytes are scalp-based cells that produce your hair’s pigment and, according to Dr. Adam Friedman, these structures switch off at a certain point in our lives.

Depending on your genes, your gray hair could show up earlier, on time, or later than others. For instance, most Caucasians’ melanocytes stop producing pigment at 35 years old. For African Americans, the process begins a bit later. Generally, for every person, their hair will grow, stick around, and then fall out in cycles that can last for up to a decade. You may notice that, over time, your hair doesn’t display a consistent length – that’s because each hair grows to the beat of its own drum. While one hair is falling out, another may just be sprouting. In terms of gray hair, when one gray strand shows up, more will follow with each new cycle.

Now, you probably want to get back to the whole does stress cause gray hair question, right?

Well, stress certainly speeds up the graying process. Stress can shorten the duration of your hair’s cycles. This means that it will be easier for your pigmented melanocytes to switch off as the color gray takes over. Since stress can lead to higher levels of inflammation in the body (because stress causes your immune system to be on guard even when there’s no danger of infection), this encourages the scalp cells to stop producing pigment.

“You see very young people with autoimmune disease who have patches of white or gray hair, and that’s because inflammation has turned off those melanocytes,” says Friedman, when discussing the relationship between the immune system and gray hair.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with gray hair (in fact, it’s actually really trendy), it’s probably not good that your stress levels are interfering with your body’s natural cycles. In that sense, if you see a gray hair seemingly appear out of nowhere, that’s most likely your body’s way of saying, “Can we please relax now?”

[Image via iStock]

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