How stress causes grey hair and what to do about it

Researchers found that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for depleting the stem cells lining the hair follicles of their ability to colour hair.

Myupchar January 23, 2020 18:45:14 IST
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How stress causes grey hair and what to do about it

Periods of high stress are often associated with greying of hair, a physical manifestation of the body’s reaction to the challenges it faces every day. We’ve all seen it happen to celebrities like Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni and much closer to home, to some of our grandparents and parents. Many of us have even experienced it first-hand. 

Researchers at Harvard have now deduced the mechanism that accelerates depigmentation of the hair. While diet and genes also play a role, the researchers found that the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight or flight response, is responsible for depleting the stem cells lining the hair follicles of their ability to colour the hair. In other words, constant, acute stress does, in fact, cause our hair to turn grey - and now we know how. 

How stress causes grey hair and what to do about it

Representational image. Image source: Getty Images.

The scientists used a process of elimination to arrive at their conclusions. At first, it was hypothesized that an immune attack on pigment-producing stem cells, or melanocytes, causes hair to grey. However, mice lacking immune cells also had their hair turn grey in the lab. The attention then turned to cortisol, which is released in the body in response to stress. But mice who had their adrenal glands removed (which produce cortisol) still produced grey hair when exposed to stress. 

Eventually, they shifted their focus to the sympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic nerves are found in every hair follicle, and when the body is under stress they release a hormone called noradrenaline which is taken up by melanocytes. Some stem cells present in the hair follicles change to melanocytes when hair needs to be regenerated. What excess noradrenaline does though is overstimulate the stem cells and convert all of them to melanocytes. The reservoir of stem cells that can pigment the hair is therefore depleted too soon and can't be regenerated. As a result, the hair that sprouts from the follicle is robbed of colour and appears grey.

The findings are significant as they go to show how pervasive the effect of stress is on the body. While the fight or flight response is life-saving, if it is activated too often, it can have adverse effects such as this. A lot of research is focused on the many mechanisms of stress and the steps that can be taken to limit its self-sabotaging tendencies. 

Here is a list of small steps you can take on your own to lower your stress levels:

1. Practice deep breathing: Take some time out during your busy day and slow yourself down by taking intentional, deep breaths. This will have a calming effect on your anxieties, bring down heart rate, and help you put things in perspective as you focus more on yourself.

2. Exercise in a sustainable way: Make working out a part of your routine - it doesn’t have to be something high-intensity like weightlifting. Even a short, brisk walk or 20 minutes of yoga will release the feel-good endorphins, assist your sleep, and make you feel more balanced.

3. Listen to your favourite songs: Listening to music is therapeutic since it has the power to distract and take you away from your surroundings. It also lowers activity in the amygdala - the centre that processes fear, amongst other emotions. In other words, your mind really is in a more restful state when you listen to music you like.

4. Progressive muscle relaxation: You can try this at home when you're in bed or when you're stuck at your desk in the office. Focus on a body part, and tense it for at least 10 seconds. Then gradually let go. It is a great technique to help you unwind and reduce stress. 

5. Follow your creative impulse: Try your hand at drawing, sketching, painting, or even journaling if you like to write. Don’t worry about being a great artist, just let your mind wander on the canvas. Performing activities where you’re in charge might make you feel better about yourself and calm your nerves as well.

For more information, read our article on Stress: Symptoms, Types, Prevention and Treatment.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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