Many folks believe that their hair will turn gray at the same age and the same rate that their parents’ hair grayed. While that might be true, there are other factors that go beyond genetics. One of them is stress.
Now, new research shows that not only can an abundance of stress trigger the graying of your hair, but removing that stress can reverse the graying process.
Here’s the amazing story…
The link between hair graying and stress has been folk wisdom for ages. Legend has it that Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the revolution, had hair that reportedly turned white just before she was executed by guillotine in 1793.
More recently, there’s documentation of what appears to be fast-track graying of several U.S. presidents.
This is not just a myth. A new study from Columbia University confirms that our hair can indeed turn gray due to psychological stress.1
But here’s the kicker…
The small study also found that the opposite can be true!
Researchers found that taking stress away may reverse the process, allowing gray hair to return to the natural color at the root.
Splitting Hairs: Premature Graying and Stress
The research adds to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that human aging is not a linear, fixed, irreversible process but may, at least in part, have the capacity to “bend” or even reverse, according to the study’s senior author Martin Picard, PhD, associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University.
“Understanding the mechanisms that allow ‘old’ gray hairs to return to their ‘young’ pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human aging in general and how it is influenced by stress,” says Prof. Picard.
According to an article in Scientific American, the the research began four years ago when Prof. Picard was considering the way our cells grow old in a multi-step manner – in other words, how some of the body’s cells show aging earlier than others.2
He realized that this “patchwork process” was most visible on one’s head, where hairs don’t simultaneously gray at once.
“It seemed like the hair, in a way, recapitulated what we know happens at the cellular level,” Prof. Picard explained. “Maybe there’s something to learn there. Maybe the hairs that turn white first are the more vulnerable or least resilient.”
The Hairy Research Begins
Prof. Picard bounced his theory off his research partner. He noted that if one could find a hair that was only partially gray it could help pinpoint when the hair began aging and what was going on in the person’s life.
“She went to the bathroom and actually plucked a couple—that’s when this project started,” he says.
Prof. Picard and his team began searching for others with these unique two-colored hairs. They came up with 14 people—men and women ranging from nine to 65 years old with various ethnic backgrounds.
Each person provided both single- and two-colored hair strands from different parts of the body, including the scalp, face, and pubic area. The researchers imaged and analyzed 397 individual hairs from the study group.
“Reversal of graying” – in which the hair strand has a white segment but was growing darker (re-pigmenting) at the bottom – was discovered in ten of the 14 participants.
Now here comes the most interesting part…
Hair Pigment Reacts to Stress and Relaxation
These ten participants were asked to look back and identify periods of extreme stress during the last year. Armed with this information, researchers looked at tiny slices of their hair and created a “bioarchive.”
Prof. Picard compared this feature of hair to “the rings of a tree” due to the hair’s ability to hold past information and align with what happened to pigment during those stressful times.
Although somewhat expected, the researchers found a “striking” association between an increase in stress and hair graying.
Conversely, when the participants reported a dip in stress levels, such as a vacation or a conflict resolution, the hair regained its pigment. Note: Once the hair grows out of the scalp, it doesn’t change color. It’s just the new growth at the root that has a chance of re-pigmenting.
Prof. Picard explains that there’s a cost to being stressed, which is perhaps why some of the body’s cells age faster.
“It’s pretty clear that the hair encodes part of your biological history in some way,” he says. “Hair grows out of the body, and then it crystallizes into this hard, stable [structure] that holds the memory of your past.”
The authors of the study add that hair growth demands energy and while strands are growing, cells receive signals from the body, including stress hormones. It’s possible these exposures trigger changes in hair pigmentation, the researchers posit.
Re-Pigmentation Won’t Work For All
Ready for the not-so-hopeful news? Graying reversal won’t work for everyone and here’s why:
First, hair needs to reach a threshold before it turns gray. According to the study authors, 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 ten-year-old will be enough to tip their hair over the gray threshold,” Prof. Picard says.
This was a very small study so there needs to be more research before anyone can say definitively what the results really mean. However, I’m looking forward to seeing more research efforts from Prof. Picard and his team. It’s a remarkable thing to consider that in some instances graying is reversible. In general, it looks like there’s a window of opportunity during which graying is most likely reversible.
In the meantime, I’ll embrace the knowledge that even if stress relief won’t reverse my graying hair, it will improve my overall physical and mental health as well as my body’s ability to resist disease. Those benefits have already been proven again and again in scientific research.