Stress Speeds Up the Graying Process


History says, for example, that Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), France's last queen before the French Revolution, had all the white threads the night before her execution in the guillotine.

The phenomenon of hair turning white from fright, shock, grief, or trauma persists in literature, Hollywood, and a new study from Harvard University. "We were genuinely curious to see if stress indeed leads to hair graying", continued Dr. Hsu.

Greying hair may be pointing at your stress level, a new research finds. Over the past two decades, researchers have found preliminary evidence that stress plays at least a small role in initiating the graying process. Once again it was a dead end to exclude the two leading competitors.

Senior author Professor Ya-Chieh Hsu, a regenerative biologist at Harvard University made a decision to undertake experiments in a bid to find out if "the connection is true". Nope, that wasn't it.

"Everyone has an anecdote to share about how stress affects their body, particularly in their skin and hair - the only tissues we can see from the outside", said Dr. Ya-Chieh Hsu, senior author of the study and associate professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University.

In the experiments, the scientists observed the relationship between pain and stress, with physical pain increasing the abundance of the stress hormone cortisol and ultimately affecting the cells responsible for hair color. Their new research, published Wednesday in Nature, focuses on stem cells, the building blocks of every type of cell in the body, including the cells that regulate hair growth. "But here, we found that the sympathetic nervous system can permanently deplete an entire stem cell population".

Few days into the study, the researchers found that all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost. "And once they're gone, you can't regenerate pigment anymore". "But the harmful impact of the stress we discovered was beyond what I imagined".

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But the sympathetic nervous system's response to stress is generally one of last resort, activated only in a dire emergency when other systems are too slow or have failed.

After much trial and error, scientists were able to link the graying of hair to the sympathetic nerve system, which controls our responses to stressful situations.

The team finally settled on the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our fight-or-flight response.

And by comparing the genes of mice in pain with other mice, they could identify the protein involved in causing damage to stem cells from stress. The natural aging process is the most common cause. Stories of early graying haven't just involved royalty either-a 2013 study found almost 200 cases documented in the medical literature since 1800.

"Because grey hair is most often linked to age, it could be associated with experience, leadership and trust". When they blocked that response, the mice stopped going grey. The team thought the immune system might be killing the pigment-producing cells, but experiments showed that wasn't happening.

Researchers hope the findings can help illuminate the broader effects of stress on various organs and tissues and pave the way for drugs that can stop the damaging effects.

When these cells are dosed with the chemical norepinephrine released during the stress response, they become overactive and soon empty these color reserves.