Physical stress can trigger melanin-producing cells in hair follicles, called melanocytes, to stop producing color — thus turning hair white or grey, according to researchers from Harvard and the Center for Research on Inflammatory Diseases (CRID) in São Paulo.
The good news is, there might be a way to stop it.
“For the longest time it’s been said that stress makes the hair turn white, but until now there was no scientific basis for this belief,” said CRID researcher Thiago Mattar Cunha in a statement. “Our study proved that the phenomenon does indeed occur.”
Cunha’s lab teamed-up with a research group from Harvard, led by biologist Ya-Chieh Hsu. Their joint study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Researchers used black mice to better understand the physical manifestation of stress, specifically pain, and the mechanism behind prematurely whitening hair. A litany of tests led scientists to discover that the stress-induced loss of melanocyte stem cells is hinged on the “activation of sympathetic nerve fibers,” which controls animals’ reaction to stress or danger, a?k?a the “fight or flight” response.
According to Cunha, stem cells naturally stop producing melanocytes as a person ages, thus leading to hair pigment loss. Their study shows that “intense” activity of the sympathetic nerve system can speed up this process: “In our model, therefore, pain accelerated the aging of melanocyte stem cells.”
Hsu, whose team had been studying the same process prior to partnering with CRID, said she “expected that stress was bad for the body — but the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined.”
The damage to the pigment-regenerating cells, she added, is “permanent.”
They believe the same mechanism that renders melanocytes useless could be negatively impacting other cells in the body.
Luckily for the stressed-out among us, gray hair is especially trendy — some might even say sexy. Hollywood types have embraced the look, such as Steve Carell, who’s looking better than ever as a silver fox. Keanu Reeves made news when he stepped out with his longtime partner Alexandra Grant, who proudly sports a gray mane.