The average scalp has more than 100,000 hairs, but it takes spotting just one single grey hair to potentially affect your mood and leave you questioning, “does stress cause grey hair?”
And the reason for this sudden onset of dismay? The stigma behind grey hair. Hair greying is most often perceived as a sign of aging, with women typically starting to observe silvery hairs around age 35, while men often begin to notice them a few years earlier, at age 30. 1
However, the greying of hair can start as early as adolescence. This is known as premature hair greying, since the grey hair appears, in some cases, decades before the average population experiences it. Potential causes of premature greying, besides genes, will be discussed in a bit.
But before jumping into the connection between grey hair and stress hormones, it’s important to understand hair color, and what is actually happening when you start to see those grey hairs popping up.
The Basics Behind Hair Pigment (And Loss Of Pigment)
Let’s begin inside a hair follicle—each one of these follicles has the capability to grow numerous hairs over a lifetime. This is where your hair pigment starts.
Epidermal stem cells known as keratinocytes “build” a strand of hair starting in the bottom of a hair follicle, stacking cells one on top of the other. These cells eventually die off, predominantly leaving behind a colorless protein known as keratin.
Good to Know: Keratin is responsible for your hair shaft’s strength and texture. It is also the main component of your nails and outer layer of skin.
Your hair gets its color through melanin-producing stem cells called melanocytes. As your epidermal stem cells create the structure of your hair, melanocytes produce the pigment melanin.
Despite the wide variability in natural hair color, there are only two pigments that mix together to give the full range of hair colors: pheomelanin (light) and eumelanin (dark). Black hairs are mostly made up of eumelanin, while blonde hair is mostly made up of pheomelanin.
So, how do you end up with grey hair? Or even white hair? Grey hair color is simply hair that has lost most of its melanin production. And white hair is hair that has a total loss of pigment—that is, it doesn’t produce melanin anymore.
Now that you know exactly where hair color comes from, and what is happening when it’s lost, it’s easier to understand what can affect melanin production—for example, genes, aging, stress, etc.
Does Stress Cause Grey Hair? The Truth About Hair Greying And Stress Hormones
Every single human has the potential to go grey. The mechanism behind it is relatively simple: little to no activity of melanin-producing stem cells leads to grey or white hair. So, what causes the loss of melanocytes?
While genes and the natural aging process are the most common factors, scientists have long been curious about the relationship between premature grey hair and stress hormones.
What scientists have theorized is that premature greying could be, in part, related to stress hormones that increase free radical production in the body. Free radicals cause oxidative stress, also known as oxidative damage—which basically means free radicals damage cells. And as you learned, melanocytes are stem cells in the hair bulb that produce melanin. So, if these cells are damaged, it’s possible there could be a disruption or elimination of melanin production.2,3
Further research on oxidative stress has shown an accumulation of hydrogen peroxide in the hair bulb, and the absence of key antioxidants methionine sulfoxide reductase and catalase in grey hair follicles, as potential aspects of the greying process.4
While more research needs to be done, a negative relationship between oxidative stress and human health has long been established, including its possible role in premature aging. Oxidative stress not only potentially affects your hair and scalp, and therefore your hair color, but also skin aging, and weight.5,6,7
How To Manage Oxidative Stress
There are three main ways, backed by scientific research, to reduce oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
- Decrease your exposure to environmental pollutants (e.g., car exhaust, some pesticides in foods, radiation, and cigarette smoke).
- Eat a diet high in antioxidants, including most fruits and vegetables.
- Incorporate consistent, moderate exercise into your life.8
Greying Of Hair: The Natural Aging Process And Stress Connection
But what if you swear you suddenly turned grey after a period of chronic stress? Your eyes may not be deceiving you, but stress and anxiety didn’t cause the seemingly overnight appearance of grey hair. But it could’ve played a role.
As you age, your hair follicles naturally produce less color. So as your hair goes through the normal process of dying and regenerating, there is naturally a likelier chance that a follicle that once produced a dark hair will grow a grey one instead.
However, when you are in a serious state of stress, you can experience a condition called telogen effluvium. Telogen effluvium causes you to shed hair at approximately three times the normal rate.
This condition does not cause permanent hair loss. Instead, due to the stress, your hair is falling out and regenerating quicker. This means if you are around the age where grey hair is common (say, middle-aged), it’s possible the new hair growing in will be more grey or white instead of your original color.9
Appearance Of Premature Grey Hair: Vitamin Deficiency, Alopecia, Etc.
As covered above, natural aging is most likely the cause of greying hair. Premature greying of hair can have a genetic component to it. This is known scientifically as autosomal dominant inheritance—basically, it just means it runs in the family.10 But the appearance of premature greying has been linked to other causes, including:
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Thyroid issues
- Vitiligo (an autoimmune condition that affects the melanin-producing stem cells in skin and hair)
- Alopecia areata (this condition causes patches of pigmented hair loss leading to grey hair appearing more visible; hair is likely to grow back grey, depending on age)11
As with any unusual change in your health or appearance, it’s recommended that you should consult your doctor. If a vitamin deficiency or a medical condition is, in fact, causing premature greying, your doctor may have ways to help.
Grey Hair Is Nothing To Stress About
So, you may still be wondering whether or not you can reverse grey hair. The simple answer – no. Grey hair is a natural part of aging. For some, it comes sooner than expected.
If you are concerned about your grey hair, coloring it is, of course, an option. Just know that if you want full coverage, you’ll need to keep up with it regularly as the grey hairs will continue to grow in.
Many people are not concerned with their grey hair, however. Nearly anyone can have a head of healthy hair to be proud of, no matter the color (or lack thereof).