Yet another reason to get a handle on stress.

By Maggie Seaver
January 24, 2020
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You’ve probably heard the theory that stress can age you. Maybe you or someone you know has experienced it personally—or simply compare any photos of a U.S. president from before and after their term in office. 

One of the most noticeable signs of aging is white or graying hair (which, to be very clear, is something to embrace and celebrate, if and when you’re ready to). But based on findings from research on mice, a new study published in the research journal Nature reveals that, in addition to the natural aging process and genetic makeup, acute stress is scientifically connected to accelerated whitening of the hair, or "formation of unpigmented hairs." 

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When stressed, the body's adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. Your heart rate increases and your natural fight-or-flight response is triggered. This study found that the instinctive survival process of stress also results in a rapid depletion of melanocyte stem cells that produce melanin in hair follicles.

The study finds, "[I]n mice, acute stress leads to hair graying through the fast depletion of melanocyte stem cells," a specialized group of cells responsible for the manufacturing of melanin, the naturally occurring pigment in both skin and hair.

In short, experiments on mice showed that, when placed under severe stress, the stem cells that produce hair color become stunted. "[H]air graying results from activation of the sympathetic nerves that innervate the melanocyte stem-cell niche," the study abstract reads.

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A watered-down version of the stress-induced chain reaction—which can result in white or gray hair—goes something like this: Intensely stressful conditions cause the activation of sympathetic nerves; that leads to a rush release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline; that then triggers a burst of melanocyte cells growth, change, and ultimate reduction.

Stress-induced white hair is permanent, per this study. However, the authors made hopeful findings on potential ways to combat this phenomenon. A separate, but related experiment helped researches pinpoint the specific protein responsible for harming stem cells effected by stress. Scientists discovered that suppressing the protein, called cyclin-dependent kinase, in mice helped stop their fur from graying.

While this is more of a first-draft scientific hunch than a cure or preventative beauty solution for prematurely graying hair, it's fascinating to think how this research could potentially influence both our relationship with stress, and even the beauty industry at large.

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