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The science behind the transformation of gray hair

Hair turning gray is a natural phenomenon that accompanies aging for most people.

It is a visible sign of getting older, but have you ever wondered what really causes this transformation?

When hair turns gray, it is due to the gradual decline of pigment cells within the hair follicles. The natural color of our hair comes from melanin, a pigment produced by specialized cells called melanocytes. These cells infuse melanin into the hair cells, determining its natural hue, whether it is blonde, brown, black or red.

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As we grow older, melanocytes begin producing less melanin, causing a gradual decrease in hair pigment. Over time, certain hair follicles cease melanin production entirely, leading to the growth of gray or white hair

Here’s more to know about this complex process and the combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that affect it:

  1. Genetics
  2. Stress
  3. Smoking
  4. Nutritional deficiencies
  5. Medical conditions
  6. Pollutant exposure
Scalp and hair

The graying of hair occurs due to a decline in melanin production, the pigment responsible for hair coloration. (iStock)

1. Genetics

Your genetic makeup significantly influences when your hair might start graying. The timing and pace of this process are largely dictated by genetics. If premature graying runs in your family, there is a higher chance that you might also experience early graying.

Certain genes are responsible for regulating the production of melanin. Variations in these genes can impact the quantity of melanin produced by your body and the rate at which pigment cells in hair follicles decline as time passes.

Ethnicity also plays a part in this genetic predisposition. For instance, individuals with lighter skin tones often experience graying earlier than those with darker skin tones due to differences in melanin production.

While genetics set the stage for when your hair might start to turn gray, other factors like stress, smoking, diet and environmental influences can accelerate the process. However, the genetic blueprint is the primary determinant of your hair graying.

2. Stress

Stress does not directly cause hair to turn gray, but there is a correlation between chronic stress and premature graying. 

The exact mechanism is not fully understood, but prolonged stress can affect the body in various ways, including potentially accelerating the graying process.

When you are stressed, your body releases hormones like cortisol, which, when produced in excess over a prolonged period, can impact the body’s normal functions. There is some indication from studies that stress could disrupt the melanocyte stem cells, which play a role in producing hair pigment. This disruption might potentially reduce melanin production, possibly triggering premature graying.

While stress is not the sole cause of gray hair, managing stress levels through relaxation techniques, mindfulness practices and a healthy lifestyle might indirectly help slow down graying for some individuals.

Couple laughing

The process of hair turning gray is a natural part of life that many people experience — serving as a visible reminder of the passage of time and the uniqueness of each individual’s genetic makeup.  (iStock)

3. Smoking

Smoking has been linked to premature aging, including the premature graying of hair. Chemicals that are present in cigarettes, and the toxins they release can have damaging effects on the body, including the hair follicles and the production of melanin.

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The harmful components in tobacco smoke can potentially cause oxidative stress, which damages cells. This oxidative stress can disrupt the normal functioning of melanocytes, leading to a decrease in melanin production and an earlier onset of gray hair.

4. Nutritional deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies can potentially contribute to premature graying of hair, although the direct causal relationship between specific deficiencies and gray hair is not always straightforward.

Maintaining a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients is crucial for overall health, including the health of your hair. Certain nutrients play essential roles in the production of melanin, the pigment responsible for hair color. For instance, deficiencies in vitamins like B12, D and E, and minerals like copper and iron can impact melanin production and overall hair health. When the body lacks these vital nutrients, it might affect the health and function of the hair follicles, potentially leading to changes in hair color.

However, it is important to note that while nutritional deficiencies can impact hair health, genetics, age and other factors also significantly contribute to the natural graying process. Nutritional deficiencies might accelerate the process in some cases, but they might not be the sole cause of gray hair. 

5. Medical conditions

Certain medical conditions often impact the body’s overall health and can affect hair pigmentation as a result. Some of these conditions include:

Vitiligo: A skin condition where patches of skin lose their melanocytes, resulting in white patches. Sometimes, vitiligo can also affect hair, causing premature graying or whitening of hair in affected areas.

Autoimmune disorders: Certain autoimmune conditions can affect the body’s immune response, leading to damage to melanocytes or interfering with the production of melanin. 

Thyroid disorders: Changes in thyroid hormone levels, particularly hypothyroidism, can impact various bodily functions, including hair health. 

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While these medical conditions can contribute to premature graying, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. Addressing the underlying medical condition might help manage or slow down the progression of premature graying in some cases.

6. Pollutant exposure

Pollutants such as vehicle emissions, industrial pollutants, heavy metals and certain chemicals can generate oxidative stress in the body, which can damage the melanocytes. Prolonged exposure to pollutants can interfere with the cells’ ability to produce melanin. As a result, hair might turn gray prematurely or lose its natural pigment.

Minimizing exposure to pollutants through lifestyle changes, reducing exposure to cigarette smoke and living in less polluted environments might help support overall hair health and potentially slow down premature graying.

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Interestingly, hair does not actually “turn” gray; it grows that way from the root. 

So, when you notice gray hairs, it is because new hair follicles are producing hair without pigment.

Despite the popular belief that plucking one gray hair will cause several more to grow in its place, that is a myth. Plucking a gray hair will not make more grow back in its place, but it is best to leave them alone as constant plucking can damage hair follicles.

While there is no scientifically proven way to reverse gray hair permanently, some lifestyle changes or treatments like hair dyes, supplements or specific hair care routines might help slow down or temporarily disguise the graying process.

Understanding why hair turns gray is a fascinating dive into the complexities of the human body’s aging process. This is a natural part of life that many people experience, serving as a visible reminder of the passage of time and the uniqueness of each individual’s genetic makeup. 

For more Lifestyle articles, visit www.foxnews.com/lifestyle.

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