There’s a definite connection between gray hair and stress. It may not always happen overnight, as per the popular imagination, but there’s a scientific explanation for it.
Have you ever heard about how some political leaders compare the whitening of their hair according to how it looked before they began their term and after they completed it? Most of them do experience an increase in gray.
Science discovered that stress may deplete the stem cells that produce hair pigment. This is because they stop coloring the hair follicle when they’re no longer there.
Researchers also found a link between the genes that provide hair color and those that mediate the body’s immune response. This explains why some people go gray when going through a severe infectious process. Genetics is also related to the skin condition known as vitiligo, where unpigmented patches appear all over the body.
Let’s take a closer look.
The connection between gray hair and stress
Some scientists consider gray hair to be the natural state of the hair. This is because it has no pigment and becomes more evident as we age. Under this perspective, believing we go gray after being stressed is a semantic error. In reality, we’re reverting to normal.
Hair color begins in cells known as melanocytes. These produce the pigment melanin, which colors skin and hair. The greater or lesser darkness is due to a variety of this substance which is eumelanin.
Melanocytes lose their ability to produce melanin as we age. The less melanin, the darker the hair coloration, and we perceive it as gray hair. Of course, this is more noticeable in individuals with darker hair.
So, we cannot ignore the effect of aging beyond the possibility of stress as the cause of gray hair. In this process, there are no measures to take against it, other than dyeing it.
Stressed or infected?
As we mentioned at the beginning, a scientific study found a link between immune response genes and those that regulate skin and hair coloration. This means that a major infection can accelerate graying.
Unsurprisingly, infections that strongly impact the body are stressful. The body must set up adaptation mechanisms that allow it to survive and not succumb to the situation. It’ll overcome the stress if it adapts correctly.
The study cited above proposed a link via the MITF protein. This protein is affected by the human immune system when attacking a significant infection. The protein ceases to regulate the process of melanin formation in melanocytes when affected and the cells suspend their function.
There’s no coloration in the absence of melanin and so gray hairs become more numerous. This isn’t an immediate response, but there may be a sensation of acceleration in dark hair, where gray hair is more noticeable.
Sudden gray hair, or Marie Antoinette syndrome
Marie Antoinette is a popular name when it comes to stories about going gray under stress. According to one of them, the hair of the French queen turned gray overnight when she learned she’d be guillotined.
This gave rise to the name Marie Antoinette syndrome for clinical cases of sudden graying of hair. Technically, the scientific name of the disorder is Canities Subita.
The truth is there’s no such graying in this condition. In reality, the main symptom is abrupt hair loss due to stress. The underlying issue is the stressful situation, but the consequence varies.
What we know is there’s an underlying autoimmune disease. Stress only accelerates the autoimmune process by loosening the hair follicles and leading to severe hair loss. Of course, gray hair becomes more visible after such a massive loss so it looks like a sudden graying.
However, this isn’t a common disorder. In fact, only 0.2 % of the general population has experienced Marie Antoinette syndrome. Most of them recover their hair after the stressful situation is no longer there without the need for further treatment. However, twenty percent of these patients do progress to generalized hair loss and total alopecia.
Does hair turn gray when people are stressed?
The answer to the question of whether we go gray when stressed is: yes, we do. Internal mechanisms may be triggered by stressful situations and our melanocytes lose the ability to produce melanin.
However, sudden graying, or the overnight graying of hair, doesn’t exist. This syndrome, known as Marie Antoinette syndrome, is actually stress alopecia and has nothing to do with going gray.
Finally, consult a dermatologist if you think your gray hair has changed too suddenly. A professional should be able to advise you on your symptoms.