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Hair Science: Does Stress Cause Gray Hair?

Stress has many negative effects on the body: high blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and . . . gray hair? Most people believe there is a link between stress and gray hair; but is the link really as certain as we’re led to believe?

The answer is: not really. Stress definitely isn’t a good thing; but exactly how it affects our physical and emotional health isn’t well understood. What we do know is that stress is a normal response to any kind of threat we face — real or imagined. It activates our “fight or flight” response, which jumpstarts our body into a state where it’s ready to deal with whatever threatens us. Acute stress, which only lasts for a short time, is not necessarily a bad thing; but chronic stress is harmful and causes our body to wear down more quickly.

To understand how this happens, we need to get into our body’s chemistry. When we perceive a threat, three hormones are released:

  • Adrenaline: Produced by the adrenal glands just above the kidneys, it’s responsible for increasing heart rate, inhibiting digestion, constricting blood vessels, and decreasing hearing and vision.
  • Norepinephrine: Responsible for increasing the heart rate, it also affects the part of the brain that’s responsible for attention and focus.
  • Cortisol: If you’re watching your weight, you may have heard how this hormone can help your body store fat; but it’s also responsible for increasing blood pressure and blood sugar, hardening arteries, and lowering growth hormone levels. It’s also believed to weaken the immune system.

When present in the body at elevated levels over long periods of time, these hormones have the effect of keeping the body constantly on alert, which uses a lot of energy and is a contributing factor in early aging — including graying hair.

Duck, cover and hold

photo by Quinn Dombrowski

There are also smaller genetic changes that occur as a result of prolonged stress.

  • Oxidative stress: We’re told to consume antioxidants in order to counter the effects of oxidants — highly reactive compounds our body creates naturally but in increased amounts in response to any kind of stress. Researchers believe that severe oxidative stress can cause increased cell death, which makes people age more quickly.
  • Glycation: This is what happens when glucose, a form of sugar, binds to our DNA, lipids, and proteins, making them less effective. Since people who are stressed often consume more junk food, they usually have higher levels of glucose. As we get older, glycation causes decreased blood circulation, which leads to increasing malfunction of the body’s tissues and a hardening of the skin, making us look older.
  • Diminishing telomeres: Telomeres are the regions at the end of each of our 23 chromosomes. Every time our cells divide, the telomeres shorten just a little bit. Researchers are studying the effects of stress on how quickly our telomeres shorten, with the effects of more rapidly diminishing telomeres including more rapid muscle weakening, decreased hearing and vision, and graying hair.

While all this biology goes a long way in explaining how stress could lead to premature aging, it’s not only biological factors that are involved. People who are stressed often don’t take care of themselves the way they should. They don’t get enough sleep, eat as well, get enough exercise, and sometimes turn to drugs or alcohol to help them deal with their stress. So for all the stressed people out there, you’re not necessarily doomed to premature aging. Just be sure to keep up the good habits and ditch the bad ones.

Of course, if premature aging has already taken its toll, you can always contact us at 800-776-7775 for the best hair transplants in New York!