Researchers say they now think they know how stress causes grey hair, saying that it may be linked to nerves in the “fight or flight” response system.

Experts say stress is only one of the factors that can cause grey hair. Genetics also plays a major role. Yup, you get to thank your parents for that.

Stress may be a primary factor in just how quickly hair goes from colored to ashen, a study Trusted Source published in the journal Nature suggests.

Scientists have understood for a long time that a link is possible between stress and grey hair. However, this new research from Harvard University in Massachusetts probes the exact mechanisms at play more extensively.

The researchers’ initial tests observed closely at cortisol, the “stress hormone” that surges in the body when a person experiences a “fight or flight” response.

It’s an important bodily function, but excessive cortisol is known to contribute negative effects for health.

But the sympathetic nervous system is revealed to be the culprit, ending up in different parts of the body’s fight or flight response.

These nerves are everywhere in the body, even between each hair follicle, according to researchers.

Norepinephrine, the chemicals released during the stress response, causes pigment producing stem cells to activate prematurely, depleting the hair’s “reserves” of color.

“The detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined,” Ya-Chieh Hsu, PhD, a lead study author and an associate professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard, said in a press release. “After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost. Once they’re gone, you can’t regenerate pigments anymore. The damage is permanent.”

Why we go grey

Stress isn’t the only or even the main reason why people turn grey.

In most cases, it’s simple genetics.

“Gray hair is caused by loss of melanocytes (pigment cells) in the hair follicle. This happens as we age and, unfortunately, there is no treatment that can restore these cells and the pigment they produce, melanin, Dr. Lindsey A. Bordone, a dermatologist at ColumbiaDoctors and an assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, told Healthline.

“Genetic factors determine when you go gray. There is nothing that can be done medically to prevent this from happening when it is genetically predetermined to happen.”

From this we see that stress is only a factor, not the main reason.

Smoking is well known as a risk factor for premature graying, according to a 2013 study by Trusted Source.

Deficiencies in protein, vitamin B-12, copper, and iron are other contributing factors to premature greying as well as aging due to the accumulation of oxidative stress.

This stress is caused by an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body that damages tissue, proteins, and DNA.

Some degree of oxidative stress is a natural part of life.

“We would expect increasing gray hair as we advance in age, and we see about a 10 percent increase in the chance of developing gray hair for every decade after age 30,” says Kasey Nichols, NMD, an Arizona physician and a health expert at Rave Reviews.

Changes to effectively delay premature grays includes eating a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts and fatty fish, not spending too much time in the skin-damaging and hair-damaging ultraviolet light of the sun, and consuming vitamin B-12 and vitamin B-6 supplements.

Check-ups are recommended if one is greying prematurely.

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