What causes our hair color to fade as we age? Why do some go grey prematurely while others retain their youthful shades into old age? As I witnessed my hair progressively transition from a deep black to salt-and-pepper to finally a shimmering silver, the combined stress and fascination of this phenomenon prompted me to write this article.
If you’re looking for a short TLDR of hair greying, here it is: Hair greying is caused by the gradual depletion of melanocyte stem cells which produce color pigments in each hair follicle over time due to genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors.
Now, if you’re looking for a more detailed dive into the nitty gritty behind your rapidly greying hair stick till the end of the article to get a better idea.
What Gives the Vibrant Colors to Our Hair?
Our hair color is determined by cells called melanocytes that live in each hair follicle and inject color pigments called melanin into the growing hair shaft.
Melanin comes in two types: eumelanin which produces black and brown shades, and pheomelanin which produces red and blonde tones. The specific ratios of these melanins create a variety of natural hair colors among humans.
Hundreds of genes regulate melanin synthesis and deposition into hair strands. So hair color is a polygenic trait, similar to eye color and skin tone. Several key genes have been identified – from MC1R which controls reddish tones to IRF4 influences darker shades. Allelic variations in this myriad of ‘pigmentation genes’ contribute to our hair color diversity.
Common Causes That Disrupt Your Hair Color Over Time
1. Oxidative Stress and Free Radicals
As we age, metabolic byproducts called reactive oxygen species accumulate and cause oxidative damage to cells and tissues throughout the body, including the pigment-producing melanocytes. Antioxidants help neutralize these free radicals. But when their load becomes too high, it can lead to cell death and tissue degeneration over time.
2. Defects in the Melanocyte Stem Cell Niche
Melanocyte stem cells reside in the hair follicle niche and continually replenish the pigment cells throughout our lives. But this self-renewal process gets disrupted with age due to shortening telomeres, DNA damage from UV radiation, hormones, and abnormal signaling pathways – ultimately depleting the melanocyte pool.
3. Changes in Gene Expression
Certain biological pathways like Wnt signaling that stimulate pigment cell differentiation and melanin production are dialed down with age. Additionally, scientists have found ‘greying trigger genes’ that directly block melanin synthesis and transfer when activated in later life.
A recent meta-analysis correlating heavy smoking with premature greying indicates it increases oxidative damage and lowers catalase levels – an enzyme that protects melanocyte DNA. Tobacco smoke is also teeming with carcinogens like benzopyrene that accelerate aging. Kicking the habit can potentially salvage remaining pigment cells so they continue replenishing colored hair.
5. Thyroid Dysfunction
The thyroid gland secretes hormones T3 and T4 that regulate metabolism. Both hyper and hypothyroidism have been implicated in premature hair greying likely due to oxidative stress. Autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis that cause thyroid imbalance create inflammation, impeding hair follicle melanogenesis.
Moreover, triiodothyronine (T3) directly boosts keratinocyte proliferation and melanocyte dendricity for pigment transfer to hair shafts. So low T3 levels due to thyroid dysfunction limit melanin incorporation – initiating the greying process.
Can Greying Hair Be Prevented or Reversed?
Yes, hair pigment death and in turn, premature greying of hair can indeed be reversed as per recent studies if you take drastic steps right from the moment of discovering the first silver strand.
1. Anti-Oxidant Therapies
Several recent studies indicate that targeting oxidative stress with micronutrient antioxidants like vitamin B12 and trace minerals can moderately decrease or delay hair greying. So far, clinical evidence seems to support their preventative rather than restorative potential when administered early on. However, we need more rigorous research on optimal dosing and delivery mechanisms for tangible real-world outcomes.
Meanwhile, you can load up on antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E) that neutralize free radicals and minerals that enhance enzyme functions.
2. Do Not Pluck
Each hair follicle has a dedicated melanocyte stem cell reservoir crucial for regenerating pigment cells. But these pigment reservoirs are essentially dried up for the follicles of your grey hair strands, hence plucking won’t help, the plucked grey hair will only be replaced with another grey one.
On a related note, I’d like to address another common myth associated with plucking grey hair- no plucking your grey strand won’t make more grey hairs pop in its place. But plucking can sure worsen your hair and scalp health.
Physical plucking can traumatize your follicles, and hamper whatever chance your follicles have to regenerate their melanocyte reservoir. Over time, the accumulation of such tissue microinjuries depletes the latent pigment stem cell pool. Damaging the follicles also elevates inflammatory stress signals which suppress melanin synthesis pathways.
3. Dietary Changes
- Foods rich in copper like seafood, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and dark leafy greens help manufacture melanin. Anthocyanidins that give blueberries and blackberries their color also prolong melanocyte survival.
- Other good dietary sources – vitamin B12 (dairy, eggs), folic acid (lentils, spinach), iron (red meat), zinc (flax, pumpkin seeds), and silica (bananas, beer).
- Fatty fish like salmon and sardines, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans fortify cells with anti-inflammatory fats to counter oxidative damage. Shoot for 2-3 servings per week.
- Water makes up a quarter of our hair strands. So drink at least 2-3 liters daily to maintain integrity as greying progresses.
4. Quit Smoking and Heavy Drinking
Both habits rapidly deplete antioxidants while flooding our bodies with ROS, accelerating cell aging. Alcohol also impedes nutrient absorption vital for healthy hair.
Studies show heavy smokers are 2.5 times more likely to go grey prematurely. Tobacco smoke has prooxidant chemicals that accelerate aging.
5. Manage Stress
High cortisol levels due to chronic stress can deplete stem cells and growth factors for melanocyte renewal. Try yoga, meditation, etc.
6. Limit Hair Dyes and Heat Styling
It’s natural to lean toward hair dyes in case you’re self-conscious about your hair greying. But dyes will only amplify your situation. Frequent use of hydrogen peroxide concentrates can induce melanocyte toxicity and mutations in the MC1R gene. So, try to restrain the urge
If you have a few silvery strands peeking out of your mane, avoid heat styling of any form because grey hair is more prone to heat damage due to its high porosity and lack of melanocytes.
7. Protect Your Hair from UV Exposure
UV rays generate free radicals that damage melanocytes. Wear protective hats/scarves and use conditioners with UV filters. It’s time to put sun tanning on the shelf for a while.
What the Future Holds For The Hair Greying Issue
With recent stem cell research advancements, bioengineering the niche environment to boost melanocyte stem cells along with gene therapies to correct pigmentation defects could essentially cure greying in the coming decades!
However, we still face numerous technological and ethical barriers given the biochemical intricacies underlying hair color. Tweaking with developmental pathways can have unexpected effects too. As eternally optimistic greying individuals, let’s keep our hopes up as science progresses!
Sometimes It’s Better to Rock the Grey with Confidence
Often we associate grey hair with aging and try to hide it rather than rocking it boldly. But we can reframe it as a sparkling crown of life experience rather than something to conceal. Every time I catch my silver strands gleaming beautifully in natural light, I’m reminded of how my body constantly transforms itself.
Appreciating this mindblowing biology elevates my spirit and confidence from within. What do your glistening greys say about you?