Stress as mental health issues could turn hair gray, but research suggests that it might be reversible

Most of people experience a natural loss of hair pigment at the older age. While we often speculate that stress could also be a contributing factor, there was previously no concrete evidence to support this theory in humans until a recent study in 2021.

The graying or whitening of hair is primarily caused by the death of pigment cells in hair follicles, which results in a lack of melanin pigment. However, research suggests that melanin production can also be influenced by other factors.

Although scientists have established a link between stress and gray hair in mice, it was not conclusively proven to be the case in humans. However, a study conducted with 14 volunteers in 2021 provided strong evidence that stress can indeed lead to graying of hair.
Interestingly, the study’s findings suggest that hair color can return to its original state once the individual is under less stress. While this doesn’t mean that age-related graying can be reversed, it does offer insight into the biological processes that occur as we age.

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“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,” said Martin Picard, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University, back in June 2021.

Fourteen healthy participants aged between 9 and 65, who already had some gray or white hairs, were selected for this study. It is important to note that it took the researchers two-and-a-half years to recruit them, which suggests that these findings may not be applicable to the general population.

The volunteers’ hairs were analyzed for pigment loss using a specially developed high-resolution scanning technique. In addition to more visible graying, the scans revealed slight variations in color, indicating that pigment loss did not always progress.

By comparing the color variations with stress diaries kept by some of the volunteers, which documented stressful and non-stressful times over the last year, the researchers discovered a correlation between cycles of stress and changes in hair pigmentation in some of the study participants.

“There was one individual who went on vacation, and five hairs on that person’s head reverted back to dark during the vacation, synchronized in time,” said Picard.

The study conducted by researchers analyzed hundreds of proteins inside hairs and found a correlation between white hairs and an increased number of proteins associated with mitochondria, indicating energy usage and metabolic stress. This correlation was observed before by scientists and supports the idea that stress can lead to changes in hair color.

The team used a mathematical model to expand their findings to a larger group of people of different ages, suggesting that gray and white hairs can regain their color under certain circumstances. However, this contradicts a previous study conducted on mice, which could be explained by the differences in hair follicle biology between humans and mice.

While the ideas discussed in the study are not new, this research provides solid evidence linking hair pigmentation loss to stress and demonstrating that it can be temporary.

However, it is worth noting that the small sample size in the study means that the results may not apply to everyone. The researchers suggest that there is likely to be a threshold for biological age beyond which hair turns gray, and that stress and other biological factors can accelerate this process.

“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,” said Picard.

This news is a creative derivative product from articles published in famous peer-reviewed journals and Govt reports:

1. Ayelet M Rosenberg, Shannon Rausser, Junting Ren, Eugene V Mosharov, Gabriel Sturm, R Todd Ogden, Purvi Patel, Rajesh Kumar Soni, Clay Lacefield, Desmond J Tobin, Ralf Paus, Martin Picard (2021) Quantitative mapping of human hair greying and reversal in relation to life stress eLife 10:e67437.
2. Adav SS, Subbaiaih RS, Kerk SK, Lee AY, Lai HY, Ng KW, Sze SK, Schmidtchen A (2018) Studies on the proteome of human hair – Identification of histones and deamidated keratins Scientific Reports 8:1599.
3. Akin Belli A, Etgu F, Ozbas Gok S, Kara B, Dogan G (2016) Risk factors for premature hair graying in young turkish adults Pediatric Dermatology 33:438–442.
4. Arck PC, Overall R, Spatz K, Liezman C, Handjiski B, Klapp BF, Birch-Machin MA, Peters EM (2006) Towards a “free radical theory of graying”: melanocyte apoptosis in the aging human hair follicle is an indicator of oxidative stress induced tissue damage The FASEB Journal 20:1567–1569.
5. Bahar R, Hartmann CH, Rodriguez KA, Denny AD, Busuttil RA, Dollé ME, Calder RB, Chisholm GB, Pollock BH, Klein CA, Vijg J (2006) Increased cell-to-cell variation in gene expression in ageing mouse heart Nature 441:1011–1014.

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