Grey hairs and old age go together like “ticking” and “clock”, and although the majority of people dread the day when those first few streaks of grey show in the mirror, it is generally accepted that grey hair comes to almost everyone sooner or later, sparing only the bald.
Looking back through history there has always been a few people who greyed before their time, but these days the amount of younger people who are walking about with, or having to hide, grey hair seems to be increasing. This suggests that grey hair might not be solely related to old age, but may be caused by some other factor. So the big question is: why does hair turn grey in the first place?
Melanin: The Secret of Colorful Hair
What causes grey hair? That’s a good question, but a much better question may be, where does hair get its original color from? Answer that, and everything else falls into place.
The average person has many thousands of hairs growing on their head. Each hair grows from its own hair follicle, buried in the scalp. Hair follicles work like a root, and suck up nourishment from the body to form and grow the hairs. The hair strands are made from a material called keratin and in their natural state they are white.
As the hair grows, however, a specific group of stem cells, called melanocytes, inject a pigment into the hair strands. This pigment is called melanin and it turns the hair from white to the normal color that each individual’s DNA dictates. If something interferes with this process though, and causes an insufficient supply of melanin, the hair will only receive enough pigment to facilitate a change from white to grey.
Most people generally produce an adequate amount of melanin until they reach their later years, when the body loses some of its ability to manufacture melanin, and the hair begins to turn grey. If no melanin is produced at all it returns to its natural state and becomes as white as snow. So although it is right to make a connection between the ageing process and the greying of hair, the reals reason why hair turns grey (or white) is due to a lack of melanin.
Premature Greying of the Hair
Although the ageing process results in a natural loss of color from the hair, it is not the only cause of grey hair. Anything that has the power to affect the melanin production process has the power to turn the hair grey prematurely.
A few causes of premature grey hair:
- Genetics: Although it is not a common factor in early greying, some people’s DNA is naturally predisposed towards an early loss of color. Where this is the case there is no solution to the problem, but hair dye can, at least, disguise its effects.
- Poor Diet: If a poor diet robs the hair follicles of the vital vitamins and minerals that are necessary to produce melanin, grey hair is inevitable. Vitamins considered to be of particular importance include, vitamin B6 (chicken, tuna, bananas), vitamin B9 (green vegetables, salmon, brewer’s yeast), and vitamin B12 (fish, beef, eggs).
- Stress: A scientific study, conducted at the New York University School of Medicine, revealed stress hormones have the power to rob the hair of melanin; so that old wife’s tale about stress turning the hair grey would appear to be true.
- Health issues: Many diseases and disorders can interfere with melanin production; so keeping the body in tip-top shape should also ensure a tip-top head of hair.
- Alcohol abuse: In moderation, alcohol is fine, but excess amounts of alcohol can rob the body of vital nutrients, interfere with melanin production, and contribute to early greying.
- Medications: Some prescription medications may also interfere with the body’s ability to produce melanin. So although such medications are, by their very nature, necessary they can also be a contributing factor to the early onset of grey hair. Anyone who has worries about their medication should, of course, discuss the matter with their doctor, who may then prescribe a vitamin supplement, if required.
Older people who are unhappy about the card that nature has dealt them may be somewhat limited in their options, and will probably have to resort to hair dyes, but for people who have greyed prematurely the news is better.
If early greying has resulted from an external factor, such as bad diet, alcohol abuse, or any of the other aforementioned reasons, the damage can sometimes be reversed. Once the relevant problems areas are addressed, and melanin production is restored, the natural hair color will often return.