The celebrity Jennifer Lopez once admitted, during an interview aired on US radio, that she began hiding grey hairs when she was only 23-years old. She said the first grey hairs appeared when she began making movies, and even joked, “It was the stress, the pressure.”
Lopez is not the only person to blame stress for an early onset of grey hair. Many people, who find themselves tossing bottles of hair dye into their shopping trolleys sooner than expected, share her opinion, but is there really a connections between stress and grey hair?
Some Hair Facts
A healthy head of hair contains hundreds of thousands of hairs and each hair grows from its own follicle. Like the roots of a tree suck nutrients from the ground, the hair follicles take nourishment from the tissues that underlie the skin of the scalp. The actual hairs are constructed from a substance called keratin, and as each hair is nourished and grows from the scalp an important group of stem cells called melanocytes inject a pigment called melanin into the hair strands. This is what provides hair with its color.
As people grow older the aforementioned process starts to become less efficient, limiting the amount of melanin supplied to the hair. Any significant reduction in melanin will cause the hair to turn grey, and if no melanin is present at all the hair will turn from grey to white.
Premature greying of the hair can occur for many reasons. Some people are more genetically disposed to lose their natural hair color at an early age, but premature greying or whitening of the hair can often be traced to a poor diet that fails to supply the nourishment required to feed the hair.
The subject of whether or not stress can interfere with the natural nourishment of the hair and cause it to turn grey has been the subject of much scientific debate, but at least one scientific study indicates there is some truth to the old wife’s tale that stress can cause grey hair.
What the Scientists Found
A team of scientists, headed by Dr. Mayumbi Ito from the New York University School of Medicine, decided to take a closer look at the natural ability of stem cells to migrate from the hair to the skin whenever damaged skin tissue is in need of repair. Stress hormones play an important part in the process, so it seemed reasonable to assume a possible connection between stress and grey hair.
The in-depth studies took many forms.
- Experiments on mice: Mice differ from humans in that the melanocytes present in their skin disappear not long after birth, while the melanocytes in their hair do not. Dr. Ito’s team used genetically modified mice and utilized markers that permitted them to track the activity of specific cells and monitor their movement between the skin of the mice and their hair follicles.
- Experiments on human scalp cultures: This part of the study was important to establish how the migration process between hair and skin tissue occurs. By removing melanocyte cells from the skin the scientists were able to observe the migration of cells from the hair follicle to the skin.
- The role of Mc1r (stress receptor): The scientists also monitored the movement Mc1r from the follicles to the skin.
The study was as complete as it was complex and revealed a great many interesting facts about how and why melanocyte stem cells could be encouraged to move between the skin and the hair follicles. The intricate details of the study are beyond the scope of this article, but one part of the study stands as being particularly interesting as pertains to the early greying of hair.
Cultured mouse skin was exposed to the presence of stress hormones and when these hormones were present the skin could no longer produce melanocyte stem cells.
Dr. Ito and his team were particularly interested in finding out if excessive levels of stress may promote an over-migration of melanin cells. Their test results suggest that it can; so the answer to the age-old question, “Does stress cause grey hair? ” appears to have been answered in the affirmative. Now a connection between grey hair and stress has been established, Dr. Ito hopes that further investigation may lead to the discovery of a solution to the problem.