Hair color is determined by the amount of melanin pigment in each strand.
Melanin is produced by melanocytes, which live in the roots of each hair follicle. When these melanocytes are depleted, or the melanocyte stem cells that develop into new melanocytes become damaged or dysfunctional, there is little or no melanin left to color your hair, and those hairs turn gray.
This can happen through a few different mechanisms, mostly uncontrollable, but a few lifestyle factors have been linked to losing your hair color.
Metabolism and Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress is not what most people think of when they hear the word stress.
As your body breaks down food and other chemicals it interacts with, some of the byproducts of this process are free radicals called reactive oxygen species. These byproducts are reactive – they can damage cells and DNA and build up over time to cause disease.
Melanocytes are vulnerable to this damage, and the process of hair growth and producing melanin naturally produces these reactive oxygen species.
Your body uses antioxidants to neutralize these harmful molecules and clear them away to combat these dangerous waste products.
Antioxidants are found in abundance in plants: fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices. If you aren’t eating enough of these, free radicals can accumulate and damage your hair and contribute to much worse chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegeneration.
Smoking and UV exposure are also well known to cause oxidative stress.
To protect your hair from oxidative stress damage, eat a wide variety of vegetables and avoid smoking and excess sun exposure.
Emotional Stress and How To Reduce It
The stress we are more familiar with – the mental and emotional stress we feel in our daily lives – also comes with repercussions for our hair.
Long-term and severe emotional stress, whatever the cause may be, stimulates hyperactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, leading to a significant release of norepinephrine, which appears to interfere with the functioning of melanocyte stem cells. This process means fewer melanocytes are created, and therefore less melanin is available to color your hair.
The sympathetic nervous system is commonly called the “flight or fight” system. It gets your heart pumping fast, secretes adrenaline, and prepares your muscles for emergencies.
All this can be very useful, but not if financial troubles, family dramas, or other stresses are constantly triggering it when we don’t need it.
You can feel this activation in your breathing – quicker, more shallow, and high in your chest. When you notice this pattern of breathing and feel your heart racing (and you don’t have to flee or fight), it’s time to relax.
Breathe slower and slower. Relaxing activates your parasympathetic nervous system – the “rest and relax” system.
It will calm your body and mind and might keep your hair a little more colorful for a little bit longer.