Posted on Feb 15, 2021, 6 p.m.
A new study shows that stress really can give you gray hair. Researchers found that the body’s fight-or-flight response plays a key role in turning hair gray.
Your hair color is determined by pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. New melanocytes are made from melanocyte stem cells that live in the hair follicle at the base of your hair strand.
As we age, these stem cells gradually disappear. The researchers showed that stress also leads to the loss of these pigment-producing stem cells in mice.
Nerves in your sympathetic nervous system—which is responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response—go throughout the body, including into hair follicles. The study showed that stress causes the release of the chemical norepinephrine into the follicle.
Norepinephrine affects the melanocyte stem cells living there. It causes them to rapidly turn into pigment cells and move out of the hair follicles. Without stem cells left to create new pigment cells, new hair turns gray or white.
“When we started to study this, I expected that stress was bad for the body—but the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined,” says Dr. Ya-Chieh Hsu of Harvard University, who led the study. “After just a few days, all of the melanocyte stem cells were lost. Once they’re gone, you can’t regenerate pigments anymore. The damage is permanent.”
5 Things You Should Know About Stress
Everyone feels stressed from time to time, but what is stress? How does it affect your overall health? And what can you do to manage your stress?
Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event—can be stressful.
Stress can affect your health. It is important to pay attention to how you deal with minor and major stressors, so you know when to seek help. Here are five things you should know about stress.
1. Stress affects everyone.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. There are different types of stress—all of which carry physical and mental health risks. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time. Some people may cope with stress more effectively and recover from stressful events more quickly than others.
Examples of stress include:
- Routine stress related to the pressures of school, work, family, and other daily responsibilities.
- Stress brought about by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce, or illness.
- Traumatic stress experienced during an event such as a major accident, war, assault, or natural disaster where people may be in danger of being seriously hurt or killed. People who experience traumatic stress may have very distressing temporary emotional and physical symptoms, but most recover naturally soon after. Read more about Coping With Traumatic Events.
2. Not all stress is bad.
In a dangerous situation, stress signals the body to prepare to face a threat or flee to safety. In these situations, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival and in response to stress. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can motivate people, such as when they need to take a test or interview for a new job.
3. Long-term stress can harm your health.
Coping with the impact of chronic stress can be challenging. Because the source of long-term stress is more constant than acute stress, the body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning. With chronic stress, those same life-saving reactions in the body can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability.
Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.
4. There are ways to manage stress.
If you take practical steps to manage your stress, you may reduce the risk of negative health effects. Here are some tips that may help you to cope with stress:
- Be observant. Recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
- Talk to your health care provider or a health professional. Don’t wait for your health care provider to ask about your stress. Start the conversation and get proper health care for existing or new health problems. Effective treatments can help if your stress is affecting your relationships or ability to work. Don’t know where to start? Read our Tips for Talking With Your Health Care Provider.
- Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.
- Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities.
- Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
- Stay connected. You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.
- Consider a clinical trial. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and other research facilities across the country are studying the causes and effects of psychological stress as well as stress management techniques. You can learn more about studies that are recruiting by visiting Join a Study or ClinicalTrials.gov (keyword: stress).
5. If you’re overwhelmed by stress, ask for help from a health professional.
You should seek help right away if you have suicidal thoughts, are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, or are using drugs or alcohol more frequently as a result of stress. Your doctor may be able to provide a recommendation. Resources are available to help you find a mental health provider.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.
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