Is it fright, disease, aging…or THIS?
Graying hair is often one of the most noticeable signs of aging. And the debate over what makes your hair turn gray has gone on for years, with lots of medical lore and mysterious popular legends—but precious little science.
Does gray hair mean someone is aging faster? Does it indicate chronic disease? Is it a sign of stress? Can you really turn gray “overnight” from a fright?
Indeed, there are many stories about hair turning gray overnight, from fear, fright, or stress—such as military personnel returning from harrowing combat missions. And, of course, overnight graying is a feature of many classic ghost stories.
One of my favorites is Washington Irving’s 1824 short story, “The Adventure of the German Student.” The poor student’s hair turns gray from the shock of encountering the animated corpse of a beautiful woman who had just been guillotined during the French Revolution.
And, speaking of the French Revolution, there’s the famous legend of Marie Antoinette, whose hair reportedly turned gray one night in 1793, just before she met her fate the next morning (also at the guillotine).
But beheadings aren’t the only cause of gray hair on your head…
Scientists have known for a long time that hair that has already grown out from the follicle doesn’t change color (the pigment is embedded with the proteins of the hair filament). And it certainly can’t do so overnight.
Plus, a groundbreaking new study from Columbia University reveals scientific evidence behind the graying process—one that shows the stress evoked in these old stories may be a root cause.
In fact, researchers have linked excess stress to silver locks. But once that stress is relieved, some of your natural hair color could actually be restored.
The important link between graying hair, stress, and cellular aging
This new study is the first to provide scientific evidence linking psychological stress to graying hair in humans.1
But the authors believe their findings may hold broader significance than just confirming old legends and lore about the effects of stress on hair color…
They think a better understanding of the mechanisms behind how old, gray hairs return to their young, pigmented appearance can yield new insights into the mysterious aging process—including how aging is influenced by stress, and possibly reversed.
Their findings add to a growing body of science demonstrating that human aging is not just a linear, inevitable process toward declining vitality. Rather, aging can be accelerated by stress—and slowed down by decreasing, eliminating, or managing that stress.
And studying hair is actually quite vital to uncovering how these effects may be either accelerated or slowed: “Just like tree rings hold information about past decades and rocks hold information about past centuries, hairs hold information about past months and years,” the researchers wrote in their “plain language” study summary (the kind that we certainly don’t see often enough!).
How hair follicles track your life events
Hair holds information about our biological history. When hairs are still forming beneath the skin, in follicles, they’re subject to factors in the circulating blood, including stress hormones and lack of proper nutrients.
When hairs emerge out of the skin, they become “frozen” and the protein structure permanently crystallizes, trapping the history of their exposures in a little time capsule. (In forensic science we can also measure cumulative poisons, such as arsenic and lead, as well as essential trace minerals, like copper and selenium, in individual hairs.)
To study this “hairy” chronology, the researchers created a new method for capturing highly detailed images of thin slices of human hair. They were then able to measure the amount of pigment loss (graying) in those slices. Each thin slice corresponded to just one hour of hair growth.
To the naked eye, a normal strand of hair seems to be the same color throughout its length. But with high-resolution imaging—literally splitting hairs—you can see small, subtle changes in pigmentation along the length.
The direct correlation between stress and hair color
The researchers studied hairs from 14 study participants with an average age of 35 years. All of the participants had some gray hairs, but none of them used any chemical treatments, like dye, on their hair.
Each participant kept a diary, recording the amount of stress they experienced each week over a year-long period. Then, changes in hair pigmentation were compared to those diary entries.
(Other studies have consistently found that the best measure of stress is to simply ask people about how they are experiencing stress. These personal feelings strongly relate to health and disease outcomes.)
The researchers found a strong association between high stress and gray hairs. In fact, some participants’ individual hairs turned gray part-way down the length of the hair, correlating to stressful periods in their lives.
And, in the case of one study participant, five of their gray hairs restored to dark pigmentation after they went on a (presumably stress-free) vacation. Of course, the researchers cautioned that this gray hair reversal is rare and limited to isolated follicles—meaning there’s little chance you’ll revert to the hair color of your youth, no matter how much you alleviate your stress. Still, it indicates a nice, unique benefit of stress reduction.
The mitochondrial effect on gray hair
The researchers then looked at the levels of different proteins in hair and how they changed over time, as hair grows. They found alterations in 301 proteins when hair color changed. Based on these findings, they created a mathematical model that simulates the graying of a whole head of hair over a lifetime.
This model suggests that changes in cellular mitochondria explain how stress makes hair turn gray. (Mitochondria are the energy factories of the cell, but the researchers explained they also act like little antennas inside the cells that respond to various signals, including psychological stress.)
Of course, in humans, biological age is also an important factor for graying hair. One of the study authors, Dr. Martin Picard, said: “Based on our mathematical modeling, we think hair needs to reach a threshold before it turns gray. In middle age, when the hair is near that threshold because of biological age and other factors, stress will push it over the threshold and it transitions to gray. But we don’t think that reducing stress in a 70-year-old who’s been gray for years will darken their hair, or increasing stress in a 10-year-old will be enough to tip their hair over the gray threshold.”2
My prescription for mitochondrial support and stress relief
In my view, the benefit of this study is not just the finding of gray hair reversal (although it’s certainly a positive for those of us sporting more than a few silver locks). It’s also that it shows—once again—the importance of addressing aging at the cellular level. And the importance and benefit of reducing chronic stress at any age.
While mainstream researchers and doctors don’t pay the right kind of attention to dietary supplements, there are actually many ingredients that support the mitochondria and are key to healthy aging. My go-to trio includes:
- Aspal, also known as rooibos. I recommend 400 mg a day.
- Dandelion root. I recommend 500 mg a day.
- The adaptogen Sutherlandia frutescens. I recommend 600 mg a day.
In fact, studies show that some of these ingredients improve gait (strength and consistency of walking), which is a strong predictor of longevity and healthy aging.
Follow these recommendations and, when it comes to healthy aging, you won’t need to be dealing in shades of gray.
Plus, there are many mind-body approaches to reducing stress (without dangerous drugs), which I detail in my books Your Emotional Type and Overcoming Acute and Chronic Pain: Keys to Treatment Based on Your Emotional Type. (Both available under the “books” tab of my website, www.DrMicozzi.com.)
And finally, you can learn simple, common-sense strategies for staying vibrant, youthful, and healthy well into your 70s, 80s, and beyond in my Insiders’ Ultimate Guide to Outsmarting “Old Age.” To learn more about this innovative, online learning tool, or to enroll today, click here or call 1-866-747-9421 and ask for order code EOV3XA00.
The “anti-gray” vitamin
Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” diet could have very well been deficient in vitamin B12, which has been linked in some studies to premature gray hairs.
And, as I wrote in the March 2018 issue of Insiders’ Cures, research shows that most people over the age of 50 don’t get enough B12. So you may be facing a double whammy: Graying hair due to age, exacerbated by inadequate amounts of B12 in your blood.
That’s why I also recommend taking a daily, high-quality B complex that includes 12 mcg of B12. You’ll potentially stave off the gray, and help reduce your risk of other age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis, to boot.
1“Quantitative mapping of human hair greying and reversal in relation to life stress.” Elife. 2021 Jun 22;10:e67437.