Stress affecting the colour of our hair has been a widely acknowledged theory in our society. What is truly the science behind this concept, or perhaps is it a myth? Until this year, there have been many proposed ideas but the correlation of stress and premature greying of hair has remained as theories.
Aside from stress, genetics, and conditions such as vitiligo and alopecia areata, there are a few other known factors contributing to premature grey hair. One area of study has been nutrient deficiencies, specifically copper, iron calcium, and zinc (1). One study showed a correlation between low b12 and prematurely greying hair (2). Another factor is oxidative stress coming from UV rays, pollution, and inflammatory factors (1).
Melanocytes produce the colour in our hair. Melanocytes for hair colour, come from melanocyte stem cells located in the hair follicle (1,3,4). As the amount of melanocyte stem cells are depleted the pigment levels also decrease going from greying to white with complete depletion (1,3,4). A recent study in Nature by Zhang et al. studied the role of stress in premature greying of hair.
Previous theories presumed that the stress hormone, cortisol was the cause for grey hair, however through study in mice, Zhang and al were able to determine the responsible mechanism is through neuroadrenaline, a neurotransmitter involved in the sympathetic fight or flight system and the adrenal system (4). This activation of the sympathetic system depletes the follicle’s stem cell melanocytes, the generators of hair colour (4).
What does this mean for treating the premature greying of hair? This comes back to our naturopathic principles; addressing the adrenal stress glands (which are also responsible for cortisol levels), but also importantly, addressing the sympathetic nervous system. This system, which, we know as fight or flight, we find so often stuck in a hyperactive state.
Nature also discusses possible evolutionary ties to this mechanism, as grey hair is generally associated with age, experience and trust (3,5). In adult male silverback gorillas, only develop grey on their back after reaching full maturity can lead their gorilla troop once this silver has grown (3,6). As discussed, these thoughts open interesting future research for premature greying hair.
To read the full article in Nature, click here (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03949-8)
Elizabeth Miller, ND
1. Kumar AB, Shamim H, Nagaraju U. Premature Graying of Hair: Review with Updates. Int J Trichology. 2018;10(5):198-203. doi:10.4103/ijt.ijt_47_18
2. Dawber RP. Integumentary associations of pernicious anaemia. Br J Dermatol. 1970;82:221–3
3. Cunningham, M. R., Druen, P. B. & Barbee, A. P. in Evolutionary Social Psychology (eds Simpson, J. A. & Kenrick, D.) Ch. 5 (Erlbaum, 1997).
4. Zhang, B., Ma, S., Rachmin, I. et al. Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells. Nature 577, 676–681 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-1935-3
5. Clark,S. & Deppmann, C. How stress of fight or flight turns hair white. Nature 577, 623-624 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03949-8
6. Robbins, M. M. Behaviour 132, 21–47 (1995).