It’s True: Stress Can Cause Gray Hair

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
March 19, 2021
Stress Can Cause Gray Hair

Most of us appreciate the wisdom that comes with age, but not the gray hair. Age and genes are probably the most widely accepted reasons for hair color loss. But thyroid conditions and low vitamin B12 levels also can play a role, as can stress, according a study published in Nature.   

It may not seem like news that stress contributes to gray hair, but it wasn’t well supported with science until Harvard University researchers studied the connection between gray hair and the stress response

Why Does Hair Turn Gray?

Each strand of hair is comprised of a root and a shaft. The root is the bottom portion of the strand that anchors the hair under the scalp. The shaft is the portion we see growing from our head. Strands are surrounded by follicles – tubular shaped tissue that reside in the skin’s dermal layer. They regulate hair growth and house melanocytes, cells responsible for producing melanin or hair pigment. Over time, melanocytes die, leaving follicles with little to no melanin that produce transparent hair strands that appear gray, silver or white. 

Stress and Gray Hair

Harvard researchers believed there was a connection between stress and gray hair. To figure it out, they studied the stress response of mice and tracked the graying of their fur. Eventually the connection was narrowed down to the nerves of sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that branch out to the hair follicles.

Hair follicles contain stem cells, which can develop into many different types of cells, including melanocytes. They help reserve melanocytes by converting into them as your hair grows. 

But when you’re stressed, the SNS releases norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that’s absorbed by hair follicle stem cells. Once absorbed, the norepinephrine over activates the stem cells, causing them to prematurely transform to melanocytes, depleting the reservoir. Once all melanocytes have been used, they cannot be regenerated by stem cells.

“What’s interesting about this study is that its findings may help explain some of the other deleterious effects of stress,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. 

Managing stress is often easier said than done. A few tactics you can try include exercising, practicing mindfulness and spending time with loved ones.

If you’re having a difficult time controlling stress, please consult your physician,” says Kaminetsky. “They may be able to offer tips you haven’t tried, provide resources such as support groups, prescribe medication or refer you to a specialist.”

If you don’t have a primary care physician, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They have time to really work with you and develop a wellness plan that can help you address issues such as stress. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

Similar Posts
Effects of Stress on Your Body / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / December 7, 2018
Oral Health: The Often-Overlooked Casualty of Stress / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / February 5, 2019
How Stress Causes Premature Skin Aging / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / February 5, 2019

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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