If you’ve ever spotted a gray hair amidst your lovely locks, you probably remember the first time it happened. For me, it was at the ripe age of eighteen when a friend styling my hair remarked, “Hey, you’re gettin’ old!” and lifted the deviant strand for me to gawk at in despair. The urge to rip it out immediately was only quelled by that old wives’ tale about five growing in its place. (An obvious myth, but who wants to take that chance?)
Graying hair is almost always associated with aging, but that doesn’t explain its occurrence among people who are still young. Stress is often used as a reason, but if that was all it took, I think many of us would’ve gone gray years ago. So what’s to blame for our hair taking on a silver hue?
How We Go Gray
First of all, those annoying gray hairs aren’t gray—they’re colorless. Our hair actually starts out white beneath the scalp. Color is added within the follicle by cells like melanin. The more melanin you have in the follicle, the darker your hair will be once it grows out. So when hair “goes gray,” it just means that it doesn’t have the color it normally would. For blondes this might mean completely white hair, while for dark haired folks, this can result in gray or silver hair.
For a long time, scientists were unclear about the specific process of going gray. But recently, research performed at the University of Bradford in England demonstrated that a lack of catalase, an enzyme responsible for breaking down the hydrogen peroxide molecules naturally found in hair, is the culprit. Catalase’s job is to turn hydrogen peroxide (the same stuff used to make even the darkest hair platinum blonde) into oxygen and water, which are then excreted by the body. When levels of catalase drop, the hydrogen peroxide builds up and blocks melanin from doing its colorful duty and the hair stays colorless.
The Roles of Aging and Stress
This new insight on going gray will hopefully lead to more information about its direct triggers. Most people point the finger at aging, for obvious reasons. But just because you’re a silver fox doesn’t mean your body is in decline. A study done in Copenhagen tried to find a connection between one’s life span and physical indicators of aging, like gray hair or balding. The purpose was to see if such characteristics were related to a higher mortality rate, but that relationship couldn’t be proved. The decrease in catalase production that causes gray hair is a natural part of aging, which is why the majority of older people have gray or white hair, so gray hair is associated with aging. However, since it occurs among younger generations, it doesn’t necessarily mean the body is prematurely aging, too.
Some believe that too much stress can cause gray hairs to pop up. For instance, my mom loves to cite my brother and me as the sources of her gray hair, but scientists have been unable to prove a direct relationship between stress and going gray. It’s possible that heavy anxiety can accelerate the process, but the medical community has yet to determine whether stress alone can bring about gray hair. So the old wives’ tale about hair turning gray or white overnight due to stress or some kind of trauma is a myth, but it could be a contributor to gray hair growth over one’s lifetime. After all, if stress is enough to cause hair loss, chances are it could have an affect on our hair’s aging process, too.
Our Families Are (Mostly) to Blame
What scientists can agree on is that when we go gray mostly has to do with our genes. (Now who’s responsible for whose gray hair, Mom?) Most people start seeing a few silver strands in their thirties, but others can get them much earlier or later in life, depending on when their parents started going gray. Also, it’s been found that of all the ethnicities, Caucasians seem to start going gray first. By the age of fifty, about half of the population has at least some gray hair.
Certain diet deficiencies can also cause gray hair. Not having enough B12, either due to a lack of it in the diet or the body’s inability to absorb it due to a disease, is often the root of premature graying in children. Thyroid problems, such as hyperthyroidism, can also bring about gray hair. Vitiligo, a skin condition that causes a lack of pigmentation (i.e., white spots), can also result in hair that lacks color. However, these instances are fairly uncommon. Unless you’re going mostly gray at a very young age, chances are the gray hairs you see are just a result of the natural aging process or because you come from a family that grays early.
Knowing the particular process of gray hair production might not only shed light on its causes, but future methods of prevention and hair color restoration as well. Although I’ve always heard that gray hair is a sign of wisdom, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to cover it up after all. Of course, that could be just another tall tale for tresses, but it’s one I’ll choose to believe the next time a helpful “friend” points out another sign of sagacity on top of my head.