Was Your Mom Right? Did You Make Her Hair Turn Gray?

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For many years gray hair was a symbol of knowledge and wisdom. For the most part, it was men who were considered wise. On the other hand, women with gray hair were often seen as “old” no matter their age. But, in the past decade there has been a growing trend to live with your natural color.1

For some, gray hairs begin appearing when they’re 12 and others find they pop up only as retirement approaches. The process is influenced by genetics, nutrition, illness and stress.2 After nutritional supplementation, most treatments for gray hair have centered on hair dyes.

Thankfully, the growing trend to live with gray hair may lead to lowering exposure to toxins commonly found in over-the-counter hair care products. Whether you like gray hair or are trying to put off the day your first strand appears, you’ll find a few simple strategies can help make your head of hair healthier and stronger.

Hair Loses Color From Chronic Stress Response

Legend has it that on the night before Marie Antoinette was beheaded, her hair went completely white.3 Until recently, scientists have disagreed over whether stress is a contributing factor to prematurely graying hair. In a research article published in Nature4 scientists report they have found that stress levels may predict how much and how quickly you go gray.

The study’s authors used an animal model to demonstrate how acute stress could quicken the production of gray hair by depleting the body’s supply of melanocyte stem cells.5 These cells are important in the production of your hair color.6

In 2011, researchers from New York University demonstrated that hair follicle stem cells and melanocytes collaborate in the production of hair color, but the underlying mechanism had not been identified.

The color of your hair is determined by melanocyte stem cells that produce pigment. As you age, the number goes down. This means your hair doesn’t take on a gray pigment but loses pigment and becomes gray. After there is complete loss, your hair turns white.7

To test the theory that stress has an impact on whether you can become prematurely gray, scientists exposed mice to three different types of stressors, including psychological stress. During the testing of each one, they found that melanocytes were depleted, leading to white hair on the mice, regardless of the phase of hair growth.

Melanocytes Take Flight Under the Influence of Noradrenaline

In the past, scientists suggested it was the influence of corticosterone during a stress response that caused hair to lose pigmentation and go gray. In this study, testing revealed that wasn’t the case. They discovered the melanocyte stem cells had receptors that respond to noradrenaline. This is a neurotransmitter produced by the body during a high stress response, commonly called a “flight-or-fight response.”

Noradrenaline is produced by the adrenal glands, but even removing the adrenal glands did not prevent the mice from turning gray. It is also produced by the sympathetic nervous system, which the team showed supplies hair follicles. By blocking noradrenaline from the sympathetic nervous system, the researchers could prevent the graying of their hair.8

They also found that the hair turned gray in direct correlation with the level of sympathetic nervous system innervation. After tracking melanocyte stem cells, they discovered the cells became active and multiplied when exposed to a lot of noradrenaline.

The movement of melanocyte stem cells away from the follicles under the influence of the neurotransmitter meant the hair had no available pigment. In an accompanying commentary, the author’s concluded:9

“Connecting the dots between stress, fight or flight, stem-cell depletion and premature greying opens up several avenues for future research. Beyond developing anti-greying therapies, Zhang and colleagues’ work promises to usher in a better understanding of how stress influences other stem-cell pools and their niches.”

How Does Hair Grow?

For a greater appreciation of the results of the featured study, it is helpful to understand how hair grows. Hair is a fibrous structural protein that grows out of a hair follicle anchored in the skin.

At the base of the hair is a bulb where there are living cells that divide and build the hair shaft. The bulb is fed by the sympathetic nervous system as well as blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients. The rate of growth is somewhat different for everyone, but the average is half an inch per month.

There are three cycles of hair growth. Melanocyte stem cells are most active during the anagen or growth phase; the effects of noradrenaline, as shown in the research, can happen in any phase.

Anagen — This is the growth phase in which the matrix cells of the hair follicle are fully pigmented and undergoing vigorous growth activities.

The length of each phase varies with the site on your body and your age. On your scalp, this phase may last as long as six years. Of all the hairs on the average person's head, approximately 90% of them are in the anagen phase at any time.10

Catagen — During this resting phase, the amount of activity decreases. During normal growth only 1% of hair is found in the catagen phase.

Telogen — In this phase of inactivity, the hair detaches from the follicle and falls out. Approximately 9% of all hair is in this phase at any given time. A new hair growing in the follicle will force the growing hair out and the cycle begins again.

Other Factors That May Increase Hair Loss and Color Change

There are other factors, in addition to stress, that can affect your hair color and increase your hair loss. For instance, the authors of one study of more than 6,630 Latin Americans were the first to identify genes that influence the graying of hair, as well as those that affect hair shape and balding patterns.11

Desmond Tobin, Ph.D., from the University of Bradford in England,12 has suggested that each hair follicle has something like a biological clock that either slows or stops the activity of melanocytes. He believes your genetics have a large influence on how quickly your hair loses pigment.13

Environmental factors, such as smoking, also influence how quickly you turn gray. Based on the results of one study,14 researchers suggested there was a significant relationship between those who smoked cigarettes and those who turned gray before they turned 30. Oxidative stress from free radicals may also cause damage that triggers gray hair.15

Hydrogen peroxide is known for its use in bleaching hair. You might not be aware, but your hair accumulates hydrogen peroxide. Researchers16 have learned that an increasing amount of hydrogen peroxide can induce oxidative damage and that it is “… a key element in senile hair graying, which does not exclusively affect follicle melanocytes.”

According to Harvard Health Publishing,17 several illnesses can also increase the rate at which you turn gray. A vitamin B12 deficiency may speed the development of gray hair. Neurofibromatosis, thyroid disease, vitiligo, alopecia areata and tuberous sclerosis, an uncommon but inherited condition with characteristic benign tumors, can all increase the rate at which this happens.

Can Supplements Affect Hair Growth?

If you've ever walked the aisles where supplements are stocked, you've probably noticed the multiple combinations advertised to help your hair, skin and nails. Noticeably, they all contain various components they claim will help your hair health. But, growing healthy hair depends on more than what you put ON it; rather, providing your body with structural proteins such as keratin, collagen and elastin is an internal process, too.18

There are also factors in your body processes and environmental influences that may cause problems with hair health. Intrinsic issues happen inside your body, like processes that affect your levels of proteins, hormones and blood sugar.

To that end, a healthy diet can help protect from or promote inflammation, which in turn can influence visible measurements of the health of your skin, hair and nails. Outside the body, certain external factors can also affect your hair health, such as your exposure to the sun or air pollution.

Knowing this, you can see that, although the pharmaceutical industry promises you an easy answer through hair dye, pills and creams, these are just short-term fixes that often come with unwanted side effects.

Seek out more natural methods instead, using foods to meet your body's nutritional needs and supplements only to fill in what you can’t achieve with a healthy diet. In “Do Hair, Skin and Nail Supplements Work?” I discuss specific supplements that may help hair loss and improve growth.

Consider Natural Hair Care Strategies for Health and Beauty

Now that scientists — and you — know the impact stress has on your potential to go gray early, consider taking precautions to reduce your stress levels. These strategies also protect your heart19 and help with weight management.20 One of my favorite strategies is the use of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) that can be done at home or even in public without drawing attention to yourself.

Other options to consider are meditation, breathing techniques and music. You can learn more in my past article, “How Stress Affects Your Body, and Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Develop Greater Resilience.” Even if gray hairs have started to peek through, continue to practice stress reduction strategies as they may slow or stop the process and positively affect other aspects of your health.

Ditch the Synthetic Hair Dye

Although people have been using dye for centuries to change their locks — the Egyptians used henna to dye their gray21 — many of the processes involve the use of unnatural chemicals.22 Early in the development of synthetic hair coloring products, for example, hydrogen peroxide was used as a bleaching agent.

Other methods have been proposed, but many manufacturers continue to produce hair color with either paraphenylenediamine PPD or a related compound, p-aminophenol. David Lewis, from the University of Leeds in the U.K., finds this concerning:

“Now, I know a lot about dyes and dye stuffs in the textile industry. We would never dream of using this on textiles. Primitive, archaic, all these things come to mind. Why do they persist on putting it on human heads?”

Instead of synthetic products, reach for coconut oil which you may have in your kitchen cabinet right now. You can use it as the base for an at-home hair coloring solution. Not only is it beneficial to your health and beauty when taken internally, it can also be used topically on your skin and hair. Discover how to use it for these and other purposes in my article, “How to Use Coconut Oil for Hair Health.”

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