Grey Hairs Are Due to Stress, But Did You Know They’re Reversible?


One only has to Google images of Barack Obama before and after his Presidency to see the toll a stressful existence can have on one’s appearance (still handsome though, of course).

Whether it’s work-related stress, interpersonal issues, financial strain or the insurmountable pressure of running a country, stress can take its toll on our minds and bodies in a number of detrimental ways.

Mentally and physically, undue stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, insomnia, heartburn, high blood pressure, a low sex drive, muscle tension, fertility and menstrual issues, and a weakened immune system. And as you may have suspected from the headline that made you click on this story: greying hair.

A new study from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons has linked psychological stress to greying hair for the first time. Though researchers have long suspected this to be true (and again, the Obama example is evidence in itself), what scientists didn’t know is that greying hair can actually be reversed.

The study confirmed that hair colour could be restored once a person’s stress is eliminated, which directly challenges a previous study that claimed grey hairs were permanent.

It’s obviously great news for those of us who have spotted greys, who maybe catastrophised the discovery and either plucked them out, dyed our hair, or became a full-time hat-wearer. All good coping mechanisms, though perhaps if we’d just focused on getting to and undoing the root cause of the stress then we maybe needn’t have bothered.

As for why our hair turns grey? Turns out it’s a mixture of ageing (can’t really be helped), and you guess it, stress. “When hairs are still under the skin as follicles, they are subject to the influence of stress hormones and other things happening in our mind and body.

“Once hairs grow out of the scalp, they harden and permanently crystallise these exposures into a stable form,” said the study’s senior author Martin Picard, PhD, associate professor of behavioural medicine (psychiatry and neurology) at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Study participants donated hairs to the researchers and also kept stress diaries to monitor their calendars and the week’s level of stress. One participant actually went on holiday during the study, at which point five hairs on that person’s head reverted back to the original colour. Basically, we all need to be on vacation all the time.

After their discovery, scientists involved in the study are wondering what other signs of ageing may well be attributed to stress, and are posing the question: If we merely practised stress-reducing exercises, could we undo the worry lines too?

“Understanding the mechanisms that allow ‘old’ grey hairs to return to their ‘young’ pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human aging in general and how it is influenced by stress,” Picard said.

“Our data add to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that human aging is not a linear, fixed biological process but may, at least in part, be halted or even temporarily reversed.”

Here’s a stress-reducing breathing exercise to get you started (CC: Obama).

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