Can Stress Really Make Your Hair Go Gray? Find Out What Science Says!

“You’re giving me gray hair!”- I’ll confess, I’ve said this to my kids when their behavior stressed me out, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. But have you ever wondered how true that statement might be?

When Marie Antoinette was captured during the French Revolution, her hair reportedly turned white overnight. And one look at “before and after” photos of most American presidents tells the same story. We’ve all heard stories of people who turned gray after a stressful event in their lives. It turns out there is scientific truth to this link between stress and gray hair – and it may help scientists understand how stress affects our bodies in general.

Perceived danger gives us gray hair

Various theories have proposed that stress accelerates the aging process or triggers an autoimmune response, and that these are the reasons stress causes gray hair. However, Harvard scientists have shown that it’s a specific type of stress that’s involved. They’ve uncovered what actually takes place in the body when you’re stressed in a way that turns your hair gray.

By looking at mice placed in stressful situations, the researchers found that the fight or flight response, a bodily reaction that occurs when we are faced with a situation or a thing that threatens our safety, is what causes us to turn gray. The fight or flight response prepares us to either stay and fight or to get away from the danger as quickly as we can.

We often associate this response with the hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands and responsible for adrenal fatigue in people with chronic stress, whose cortisol levels are always high. But something else is at work in the case of graying hair.

Grayer, but wiser?

The Harvard scientists’ work with mice showed that, when we are under stress, a sympathetic nerve response activates the stem cells responsible for coloring our hair. Basically, if we get too scared, we use up the limited supply of hair pigment in our cells.

Two University of Virginia doctoral students not involved in the study make an interesting point concerning the possible built-in advantage to enduring and surviving this kind of stress. In their own words, “It is fascinating to consider what possible evolutionary advantage might be conferred by stress-induced graying. Because gray hair is most often linked to age, it could be associated with experience, leadership, and trust… Perhaps an animal that has endured enough stress to ‘earn’ gray hair has a higher place in the social order.”

In other words, living through stress makes you wiser and could, therefore, make you more respected and valued.

Don’t let stress make you unhealthy (or turn you gray)

Stress comes to every life. It’s unavoidable. Just make sure you do all you can to reduce the impact it has on your health (and your hair!).

  • Control stress on the job. Get away from your desk for lunch. Take walks. Set limits on what you will do, and when.
  • Look to food and vitamins for natural stress relief. Ashwagandha and holy basil are two stress-busting herbs from the Ayurvedic tradition of India. They are adaptogens, meaning they help your body resist the effects of stress.
  • Meditate. Meditation does not have to be complicated. My colleague, Dr. Isaac Eliaz, explains the mental and physical health benefits of meditating and gives you some tips on how to start a meditation practice.
  • Yoga. Here’s some information on how practicing yoga helps regulate your ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
  • Sleep. It’s not just getting enough sleep that’s important. It’s having consistent sleep patterns that can make the difference between health and illness.
  • Food. Here’s how prebiotic foods help your body cope with stress, along with a few recipes to try!

Editor’s notes: Are you feeling unusually tired? Maybe your vision and mental sharpness is fading. You may think this is normal aging, but the problem could be your master hormone. When it’s not working, your risk of age-related setbacks skyrockets. To reset what some call “the trigger for all disease,” and live better longer, Click Here.

Solving a biological puzzle: How stress causes gray hair — Harvard University
Scientists figured out why stress turns your hair gray — The Next Web
6 Ways to Switch Off The Fight-or-Flight Response — Dr Soph