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article imageGoing Gray? Scientists Say Blame It on Stress

By Carol Forsloff     Jun 14, 2009 in Health
“You’re giving me gray hair.” Most of us have heard that, and it turns out science supports it. So if something or someone bothers you enough, it might mean you’ll have to get out the bottle for a dye job, if you want to avoid looking gray.
A study in the June 12 issue of Cell found those graying hairs that come about with age are really signs of stress. The stress is called “genotoxic stress” that does damage to DNA. This depletes the melanocyte stem cells (MSCs) within the hair follicles responsible for making cells that are pigment -producing. Under stress, rather than dying off, these stem cells differentiate and form melanocytes themselves. Those things that interfere with stress might impede the graying process, according to science researchers.
It’s a complicated process with DNA, cell attack, and chemical reactions, but suffice to say science supports the claim people make about stress and gray hair. Too much stress, and the hair gets gray.
The group of researchers who made the discovery about gray hair and the dying off of hair color found what happened was the gradual dying off of the stem cells that maintain a continuous supply of new melanocytes, giving hair its youthful color. Those specialized stem cells become lost and in the wrong place. The process causes Ataxia-telangiectasia, an aging syndrome caused by a mutation in the ATM gene, so gray occurs prematurely.
Another study in February came up with a scientific explanation as well, but this time the process is described as a chemical reaction, somewhat different things going on, however. Research revealed graying hair results when there is a chain reaction that causes hair to bleach itself from the inside out.
The graying process usually occurs with those first few strands that occur at age 30 for men and age 35 for women, but for some can begin in high school. For others it might not happen until later. "There is evidence that local expression of stress hormones mediate the signals instructing melanocytes to deliver melanin to keratinocytes," notes Jennifer Lin, a dermatologist who conducts molecular biology research at the Dana-Farber / Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, following research conducted in 2007. "Conceivably, if that signal is disrupted, melanin will not deliver pigment to your hair." In addition doctors in general practice have noticed accelerated graying among patients under stress, says Tyler Cymet, head of family medicine at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. In a study he conducted on hair graying among patients at Sinai. "We've seen that people who are stressed two to three years report that they turn gray sooner," he says.
Many people exclaim how Presidents seem to age so quickly during their term in office. Perhaps that’s because of the stress of the job. We might see, therefore, the young-looking President Obama with more gray hair after he leaves his job, as folks remark how gray former President Bill Clinton became.
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