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Can Stress Really Cause Grey Hair?

by Alexandra Kilpatrick

Ever been told to relax to keep your hair from greying? Well, it turns out that there is some scientific evidence to back the anecdotal belief that stress can turn your hair grey.

Dr. Mayumo Ito and his colleagues at New York University recently conducted a study of mice, reported in Nature Medicine, According to the recent study, the depletion of stem cells from the base of the hair follicle leads to the appearance of grey hair after times of stress or sun damage.

What Causes Grey Hair?

These melanocyte stem cells, which reside in a region at the base of the hair follicle called the bulge, produce the melanin that pigments hair and skin. Ito and his colleagues discovered that the stem cells help to repair damaged or irradiated skin by leaving the bulge and travelling to the skin's outermost layer to replenish its store of melanocytes.

Normally, these stem cells stay in the bulge, divide and allow only the daughter cells to travel to the follicle to pigment hair, according to Associate Professor Rick Sturm, principle research fellow at the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland.

Surprisingly, in the case of a skin injury or extreme UV exposure, the stem cells migrate to the skin's outermost layer without replicating, leaving the bulge without its own store of melanocyte cells. Sturm explains that this absence of melanin in the bulge then causes a small number of hair follicles to turn white or grey from lack of pigment.

The Link Between Stress and Grey Hair

Amidst their research, Ito and his colleagues discovered Mc1r, a key stem cell migration receptor triggered by stress hormones like adenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and melanin-stimulating hormone. This receptor may explain why stress correlates to an increase in grey hairs.

The stress hormone ACTH promotes melanocyte migration from the hair follicle to the skin's outermost layer in mice, according to Ito's research. He speculates that excessive stress may promote the melanocyte migration more, leading to the absence of pigment within the hair follicle and the onset of grey hair.

Sturm claims that exhaustion and the loss of melanocyte stem cells cause grey hair during aging and posits that a similar mechanism could cause stress-related greying.

In addition to providing evidence for the correlation between stress and grey hair, this discovery points towards potential treatment methods for such skin pigmentation conditions as vitiligo, or skin depigmentation, as well as the prevention of hyperpigmentation.

Ito theorizes that the inhibition of the melanocyte migration process would be a novel approach to treating various skin and hair pigmentation conditions.

Other Causes of Greying

Besides stressors, there are numerous other factors that can cause hair to grey, from age to genetics to medical conditions.

After age 30, the probability of hair greying increases by 10 to 20 percent every 10 years, according to the Library of Congress Science Reference Service. Caucasians are more likely to develop grey hair at a younger age than African Americans or Asians are.

Those with a family history of premature greying are also more likely to develop grey hair earlier. Such genetic disorders as Marfan and Waardenburg syndromes often cause patches of grey or white hair.

In addition to genetic disorders, other medical conditions like vitiligo, anemia, immune deficiencies and thyroid diseases can cause premature greying. Smoking can also lead to premature greying in both men and women, according to a 1996 study by J.G. Mosley and A.C. Gibbs in the British Medical Journal.

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