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Why does hair turn gray prematurely?

Have you observed an increase in the strands of gray hair lately?  Why does hair tun gray prematurely? You may ask. Very likely you and your friends attributed this to stress. But is stress really to blame for gray hair? Not really. Hair turns gray on account of several factors other than stress.

What are some of the common causes and the options available?

Genetics play a key role in premature gray hair. In a 2016 study of the DNA of 6000 individuals, a specific gene tied to  gray hair colour  found. “As hair grays something happens that causes this gene to produce even lower levels of melanin,” said Kaustubh Adhikari, a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of College London.

Hair colour is attributed to melanin, a dark brown to black pigment. When the genes turn off melanin production, premature gray hairs are likely to appear. A look at your parents, could give you a reasonable idea of when to expect gray hairs. This explains why some teens and others under 30 may have gray hairs.

According to Dr Robert H. Shmerling,

The vast majority of people with gray hair have age-related graying. However, sometimes graying hair indicates an illness, especially if it occurs at a particularly young age. Health problems that may be heralded by gray hair include:

  • vitamin B12 deficiency
  • neurofibromatosis (also called Von Recklinghausen’s disease): this group of inherited diseases causes tumors to grow along nerves and abnormal development of the bones and skin.
  • tuberous sclerosis: an uncommon, inherited condition that causes benign tumors in multiple organs (including the brain, heart, kidneys, eyes, lungs, and skin).
  • thyroid disease
  • vitiligo: this condition causes melanocytes (the cells at the base of hair follicles that produce color) to be lost or destroyed — perhaps because the immune system “misfires” and attacks the scalp rather than an infection.
  • alopecia areata: a disorder in which patches of hair may be suddenly lost, especially the colored (non-gray) hairs. This may lead to “overnight” graying because previously present gray or white hairs suddenly become more obvious. When hair growth resumes, it may be white or gray, but colored hair may eventually return.

Some research also links premature graying to heart disease and low bone mass (called osteopenia, a precursor of osteoporosis). How these conditions relate to hair graying is unclear. Cigarette smoking can also cause premature graying.

What impact does stress have on hair colour?

Generally hair follicles produce less colour with age. This occurs as hair goes through its normal cycle of death and regrowth. Stress may speed up this cycle, making it more likely that gray hair would appear after sometime. Could this be why presidents seem to ”age rapidly” in office? Perhaps. But genetic, nutritional and other health related factors play a role too.

What are the possible options? There are three main options: Most people try to restore the original colour by going for hair treatments. There are hair products that can hair products that are used to conceal gray hairs depending on the severity.

The other option is to embrace gray hair. Those that are unable to keep up with the hassles of periodic hair treatments often fall back on this approach like Anderson Cooper on CNN.

“The myth that gray hair makes you old is just that — a myth. If you were young, vibrant, active, healthy pre-gray, you’re still going to be that way. It’s all in the attitude you bring to it. If you think of it as merely another color choice, you won’t be afraid of gray, says Diana Jewell, author of Going Gray, Looking Great.

It is important to note that premature graying is not a medical problem except in rare cases. Nevertheless, do not hesitate to seek help if it is associated with other medical conditions.



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