Life is stressful, and our bodies’ responses to stress are powerful. But does stress really cause gray hair or make us go gray faster? We take a look at why hair can change colors throughout our lifespan, why we naturally gray as we age, and if keeping a lid on stress responses can help keep the grays at bay for longer.
How we get our natural (pre-gray!) hair color
A pigment called melanin helps determine our hair color. So what decides how much melanin we produce? Our genes. We all have the capability to produce two different kinds of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Your hair color is determined by how much and what type of melanin your genes tell your cells to produce.
If you have black or brown hair (like most of the population), your cells produce a substantial amount of eumelanin. Less eumalenin equals blonde hair. And, red hair occurs when mostly pheomelanin is produced.
Natural hair color changes through puberty and beyond
For many of us, hair color doesn’t just stay the same throughout our lives until it one day turns gray. Some of us will experience lightening or darkening of our strands throughout our lifespan. The reason behind this change? Our genes can be activated or deactivated based on other changes within the body.
An easy example of how hair changes color is to look to childhood. Some babies are born with black hair, but later have brown strands. And, children who are born with very blonde or blonde often end up with brown hair as they grow.
Researchers hypothesize that changing hormone levels may play a role in turning on or off genes that determine how much melanin your hair produces. And because hormonal changes aren’t limited to puberty and adolescence, our natural hair color can shift at other times in our lives, too.
Why our hair naturally grays as we age
But the shift we’re most likely to notice is the gray strands starting to sprinkle throughout our natural color. When you go gray mostly depends genetics and ethnic origin, but many of us will see at least a few grays between age 30 and 35.
But what exactly makes us go gray? Earlier, we mentioned our hair follicles have cells that produce melanin, which determines our unique hair color. As we age, these cells (melanocytes) get tired and just don’t make as much melanin. When this happens, welcome to the world of gray strands. When no melanin is produced, any new hair growth comes in as white. A lot of us complain about grays, but the reality is it can be gorgeous.
Does stress cause gray hair?
For many of us, finding our first gray hair can be stressful in and of itself. But does stress cause gray hair? Or at least cause us to gray faster?
The answer is yes and no. Graying is a natural process that still isn’t completely understood. But, in a 2020 study on premature graying, researchers found oxidative stress to hair follicles impacts hair color. Oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance of free radicals to antioxidants. Some factors that cause oxidative stress are inflammatory conditions, sun exposure, air quality and exposure to chemicals, and emotional stress.
Indirect ways stress can cause gray hair
But what we do know is stress indirectly causes increased graying. Stress depletes our bodies of nutrients or interfere with nutrient absorption, whether from increased demand or resulting inflammation. Our cells need certain micronutrients to produce the melanin that determines our hair color. Deficiencies in calcium, copper, zinc and iron have recently been linked to premature graying.
Vitamin B12 deficiencies can cause premature graying, too. Lack of vitamin B12 isn’t just connected with health conditions. When we’re stressed, our bodies’ natural need for vitamin B12 increases. Not getting enough of this essential vitamin—or in the form your body needs (due to uptake issues)— can lead to low levels.
Another way stress can be connected with early graying: thyroid hormones. Too much stress makes for chronically high cortisol levels, and, over time, your thyroid can’t keep up. T3, or triiodothyronine, decreases. Lower levels of this hormone change the look and feel of your hair in several ways, including decreasing how much melanin melanocytes make.
Is there a way to prevent gray hair?
Dyeing your hair is the only surefire way to prevent noticing grays. (Just don’t check your roots!) But supporting your body the best you can may help keep premature graying from happening to some extent.
Part of taking care of your body is being proactive about your health. Keep regular primary-care and specialist appointments, so you can find and address conditions early and head-on. Speak up with your providers, and don’t hold back when you have symptoms or they’re affecting your life.
Lifestyle changes also help. Reduce stress through meditation, yoga, or other mind-body therapies. If you struggle with doing that on your own, personalized coaching can help keep you accountable and work in-depth on realistic, doable opportunities for improvement.
It’s also so important to nourish your body. That means eating enough calories and varying your diet to include all types of foods, with a focus on fresh, wholesome ingredients using fruits and vegetables, protein sources, and carbohydrates with plenty of fiber.