Most often, we think of gray hair as a sign of aging. And indeed, that is the most common and natural cause of graying hair in humans. But surprisingly, several other factors can cause you to gray earlier than anticipated. And while your genetics are the driving factor of when your hair will change color, your DNA is not the only thing to blame. Here is what you need to know about how gray hair shows up and what factors contribute to it.
How does hair turn gray?
Before diving into the various factors contributing to gray hair, it is important to understand the cellular changes that lead to graying hair in the first place. Our hair color is determined by our genetics. Specialized pigment-producing cells called melanocytes make a chemical called melanin that gives our hair its specific color. Melanocytes live around the hair follicle and essentially inject melanin into the keratin cells as they emerge from the scalp.
When we are young, we have plenty of melanocytes providing pigmentation to our hair follicles, but with age (and sometimes earlier in certain people based on their genetics), we start to lose melanocytes. And once melanocytes go away, they do not come back. Therefore, there is no turning back or correcting graying hair once it has happened. For this reason, it is especially important to understand what can contribute to gray outside of aging (and fortunately, some of these factors may be preventable).
Stress and gray hair
Perhaps the most common cause of gray hair outside of aging is stress. When most of us think of stress, we conjure up images of our busy and demanding lifestyles that inevitably lead to stress. But different types of stress can affect our hair color. And we must remember that behind any physiological change, such as graying hair (or even health problems like diabetes), is some form of physiological stress on the body’s tissues.
Oxidative stress is a type of stress that occurs when there are not enough antioxidants to fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can pull electrons away from healthy cells, causing our own cells to become unstable themselves and eventually ineffective. A well-known example of free radicals comes from the sun and subsequent skin damage that can sometimes lead to skin cancer and other skin complications.
Essentially, too much oxidative stress causes cells to stop functioning. For example, in the case of graying hair, an overabundance of free radicals can interfere with melanocyte production, causing hair to whiten or gray. Therefore, avoiding causes of oxidative stress, such as excessive sun exposure and toxin ingestion, can make a big difference in your overall health.
The more familiar form of stress to most of us is that which comes from our busy day-to-day lives. With our primitive ancestors, our stress response was a way to keep us safe from predators. Our ‘fight or flight’ response helped us react in dangerous situations that threatened our health and our lives. Today, this response system still dictates how our bodies react under any type of stress, whether it’s from an important exam or speech or hurrying to pick up kids after school, our bodies respond the same.
But we were not meant to be chronically in a state of fight or flight. Indeed, it was reserved for those critical times when we faced a crisis that may have meant life or death. However, many people are living in a constant state of fight or flight, which is causing long-term health problems like cardiovascular disease. And yes, it is also a factor behind premature gray hair.
Vitamin deficiencies and gray hair
Another cause behind the loss of hair pigmentation is vitamin deficiency. For example, deficiencies in B6, B12, biotin, vitamin D, vitamin E, and ferritin may cause early graying. Intriguingly, some studies show that replenishing the body with these nutrients through proper supplementation may help restore hair color. As of now, most other factors contributing to gray hair are irreversible, so more research is needed to understand exactly how proper nourishment can affect and alter hair color.
Smoking and premature gray hair
In lieu of our earlier mention of oxidative stress comes the biggest culprit driving oxidative stress–smoking. Several studies have shown that people who smoke are much more likely to gray earlier compared to those who do not smoke. Quitting smoking is one of the most important steps to take if you want to prevent premature gray hair (and numerous other health problems).
Other causes of gray hair and what you can do
The above factors that contribute to gray hair are perhaps the most common. However, it is important to note that certain hair practices, such as color treatment, can also affect your natural hair pigment. Indeed, many of the chemicals used to die hair can “kill off” melanocytes, leaving you with dull, lifeless, colorless hair. Some hair products that contain harmful chemicals can also strip your hair of its natural color.
If you are concerned about graying earlier than expected, first consider if you have any of the above factors in your life. Are there areas where you can make changes, such as reducing your stress load, improving your diet, or quitting smoking? If you do not have any obvious answers from the above factors, it may help to meet with your health provider to rule out other causes, such as certain health conditions that may be treatable.