Like other topics, going gray is an active topic of debate and has its share of old wives’ tales. For example, you may have heard the old wives’ tale that trauma or shock can make a person go gray overnight. Truth be told, something called alopecia areata—a rare condition in which darker and thicker hair strands stop growing before gray strands do—is to blame. It gives the appearance that a person has “gone gray overnight,” but the continued gray hair growth is what predominates—which is what gives the dramatic and quick graying effect.
Stress is not ruled out, however, as a factor in premature gray. In fact, when the body undergoes physical or emotional stress, the B vitamins and other key nutrients are the first ones to be depleted. Among other effects, a shortage of B vitamins is linked to hair discoloration and graying.
That makes sense because B vitamins are important for healthy skin, eyes, nerves and hair. Not getting enough B12, for instance, can result in unhealthy hair growth leading to gray and weakened hair. Here’s what happens: hair follicles don’t get enough oxygen-rich blood due to lack of enough red blood cells and B12 in the body, so graying results.
Additionally, stress hormones—either body-wide or in hair follicle cells—can result in inflammation that supports free radicals, the unstable molecules that damage cells. Free radical damage is part of a certain kind of stress known as oxidative stress that creates damage throughout the body and its cells, but can also directly affect hair follicles, lead to graying and to overall aging. Ralf Paus, professor of dermatology at a university hospital in Germany agrees. “Graying could be a result of chronic free radical damage,” he says.
General practice physicians have also noted accelerated graying in their patients under stress, says Tyler Cymet, head of family medicine at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. He says that consistent mental and physical stress—over the course of years—may cause premature aging of the body, including hair. Graying hair occurs when the cells producing pigment cease to produce, and this process may be directly affected by stress.
Results of a study on hair graying among patients at Sinai led Cymet to conclude, “We’ve seen that people who are stressed two or three years report that they turn gray sooner.” Cymet believes that going gray is “genetically outlined, but stress and lifestyle give you variation of plus or minus five to 10 years.” In fact, Cymet believes that people today, on average, turn gray about five years earlier than they did in 1970—a phenomenon he says is caused by a faster-paced lifestyle, poor diet and lack of sleep.
Generally speaking, the first silver strands occur around age 30 for men and around age 35 for women, but graying can happen as early as high school and as late as the 50s. At any rate, most people probably don’t want to go gray prematurely, especially as a result of diet and lifestyle. So be sure you follow a nutritious diet with plenty of B vitamins and antioxidants, live a healthy lifestyle, de-stress and get enough sleep, too. It can keep you—and your hair—healthier.