We can thank Harvard for the answer to an age-old health riddle. They appear to have found the link between stress and gray hair. For centuries, if not millennia, mankind has noted how high stress can trigger sudden hair graying. Many tried to find the exact mechanism by which this occurs., but Harvard researchers finally pinned it on the nervous system.
Now we can say that the legendary effects of stress on hair color have a biological basis. Many times in medical science, we either have no clear link with observed correlations or ultimately prove that the link is not as we thought. In this case, we can now say that the surge of noradrenaline through sympathetic nerves to the scalp cause the pigment stem cells to all mature at once and leave none behind to provide more.
Noradrenaline, also known as norepinephrine, stands between dopamine and epinephrine (adrenaline) in the line of neurotransmitters called catecholamines. Our sympathetic nervous system, being responsible for the fight or flight response to stress, uses noradrenaline and adrenaline to actuate various physical effects like heart rate, blood pressure, increased blood flow to muscles, and more. Stem cells are the immature cells in our body which can be stimulated to mature into the functioning cells and tissues we need over our lifespan.
A good dose of adrenaline or noradrenaline may allow you to run away from the bear, but if the stem cells get too much of these stimulators, they apparently all turn into pigment cells and leave no stem cells behind for future generations of hair follicles. And once its down, its permanent in their opinion.
Well, there you have it. No more speculation. Just good science to connect the dots. But what can you do about it? For now, this Functional MD would say to modulate stress whether in daily life or biological toxins. Keeping our anti-oxidants high and our life stressors under control could prevent the stem cells from losing their marbles and causing the gray hair. We need studies to prove this, but while we wait, those habits are good for you anyway. Good nutrition and toxin avoidance go a long way. Wisdom in facing life including spiritual strength in trusting a loving God combines with that nutrition to keep stress under control. Discerning how you as an individual carry out these habits is a lifelong practice. At Sanctuary we work to guide our patients in these habits.
Bing Zhang, Sai Ma, Inbal Rachmin, Megan He, Pankaj Baral, Sekyu Choi, William A. Gonçalves, Yulia Shwartz, Eva M. Fast, Yiqun Su, Leonard I. Zon, Aviv Regev, Jason D. Buenrostro, Thiago M. Cunha, Isaac M. Chiu, David E. Fisher, Ya-Chieh Hsu. Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells. Nature, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-1935-3
Thanks to Science Daily:
Harvard University. “Solving a biological puzzle: How stress causes gray hair: Scientists uncover link between the nervous system and stem cells that regenerate pigment.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 January 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200122135313.htm>.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.