Stress is Making Me Grey
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gray hair

Photos of US presidents when they leave office show men with much greyer hair. This is a milder form of the Marie Antoinette Syndrome where stress causes hair to suddenly turn white. The story is that France’s last queen, Marie Antoinette had her hair turn white the night before she faced the guillotine and now research shows stress does cause hair to grey.

Our hair follicles contain melanocytes which produce the melanin that gives our hair color. And Melanocytes are made by melanocytes stem cells or MeSCs in the follicle. With age, we have less of these stem cells but stress also uses them up.

Scientists thought stress activated autoimmune responses or hormones such as corticosterone damaged MeSCs. But when they blocked the hormone corticosterone in stressed mice, the animals’ hair still turned grey. So did stressed mice with poor immune systems, however, when they blocked the receptors for the fight or flight hormone, noradrenaline, these mice did NOT grey.

Noradrenaline is in the sympathetic nervous system and our hair follicles contain many of these nerves. During extreme stress, reproduction of MeSCs and the maturation of melanocytes speeds up which sends a large number of melanocytes out the hair follicle so that no MeSCs are left to replenish them. Once this happens, hair is never its original color again. But if you can reduce MeSC reproduction during stress, this loss is blocked. Perhaps one day we’ll see a new way to “color” hair?

For more information…

How the stress of fight or flight turns hair white
Signalling from the sympathetic nervous system of mice when subjected to stress leads to the depletion of a stem-cell population in their hair follicles. This discovery sheds light on why stress turns hair prematurely grey...

Before-and-after photos show how dramatically presidents aged in office
Upon leaving office, President Barack Obama seemed to be the latest victim of the expedited presidential aging process that has been known to plague presidents, causing them to appear to age faster because of the stress of the office...

Marie Antoinette Syndrome
Marie Antoinette syndrome designates the condition in which scalp hair suddenly turns white. The name alludes to the unhappy Queen Marie Antoinette of France (1755-1793), whose hair allegedly turned white the night before her last walk to the guillotine during the French Revolution...