No scientifically proven direct link between gray hair and stress has been found, but some studies suggest that stress does play a role in the graying process. Heredity largely determines when an individual begins to gray, although how and why hair changes this way with age is not yet fully understood. What is known is that premature graying is not an accurate indicator of aging in the body; people who gray sooner than others are not aging prematurely. Some stress is normal and can even be beneficial if an individual needs to react quickly to a threat, but if the effects last too long, stress can take its toll on the body. Managing stress will not prevent gray hair but may help slow the process.
The Journal of Investigative Dermatology published a study in 2005 that demonstrated how the graying process is largely determined by heredity and genetics. Caucasians generally go gray as early as their mid-30s. Asians follow later, while Africans tend to gray last. Approximately 50 percent of people who are 50 years old are at least half gray. The study did not examine any possible relationship between gray hair and stress.
Scientists do not completely understand how or why hair eventually goes gray or white. The pigment melanin produced by hair follicles is what gives hair color. Melanin is either dark brown or black or yellow or red, and these two types combine to create all the possible colors of human hair. As the follicle produces less melanin, hair gradually losses its color and turns gray. White hair results when there is no melanin being produced at all.
In early 2009, The FASEB Journal published a study by a group of European researchers that purports to show how hydrogen peroxide blocks the synthesis of melanin. Every hair cell naturally produces hydrogen peroxide that eventually builds up. This buildup blocks melanin from adding color to hair, resulting in a gradual graying. Although the study did not uncover a link between gray hair and stress, it did identify the chemicals involved in the process. Identifying the chemicals involved makes it possible to examine if and how stress impacts graying.
Although scientists have not proved and accepted a direct link between gray hair and stress, some studies do indicate the possibility. Professor of dermatology Ralf Paus suggests a chain reaction. Stress could be producing inflammation and increasing production of free radicals that damage cells and reduce melanin production. Harvard Cancer Center dermatologist Jennifer Lin believes that stress hormones can disrupt the delivery of melanin to hair.
There are no products, medicines, or supplements proved to decrease or halt the graying process. Even if a link between gray hair and stress is eventually established, it is likely that heredity will remain the determinative factor, with stress as a trigger, according to Dr. Karin U. Schallreuter, the lead author of the European study. Managing stress may help slow the graying process, however. Sufficient sleep and exercise, efficient time management, and relaxing activities are all ways to lower stress that may keep gray hairs at bay for at least a little while.