Research shows that chronic stress can decrease stem cells that produce pigment of color in your hair. This can lead to gray hair.

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It’s a popular belief that stress can lead to gray hair.

During stressful times, people often credit “the job” or “the kids” for their premature grays. While some may be only joking, there’s some truth to the theory.

Until recently, little scientific evidence of a link between stress and gray hair has been shown. But a 2020 study on mice found that the body’s response to acute stress plays a key role in turning hair gray.

Melanocyte stem cells, which live within the hair follicle at the base of the hair strand, make melanocytes. Hair color is determined by melanocytes which produce the pigment melanin.

As you age, melanocyte stem cells gradually disappear. When your hair regrows from follicles that have lost these cells, it has less pigment or color.

According to researchers, stress causes the stress hormone norepinephrine to release into hair follicles. This caused a noticeable loss of melanocyte stem cells in mice. Without these stem cells, new hair turns gray or white.

Other physical effects of stress

When you face a stressful situation, your body releases hormones that create the fight, flight, or freeze response. This sets in motion a series of changes in the body, such as:

  • increased heart rate and breathing rate
  • tense muscles
  • sweating
  • increased metabolism and blood pressure

These physical changes come in handy when you need to react quickly in a life threatening situation. They helped our ancestors who needed a burst of energy to fight or flee predators, such as a saber-toothed tiger.

But this emergency stress response isn’t always useful in our modern world of everyday stressors.

Our bodies can cope with the occasional stress. But your body remains aroused when stress becomes chronic or your mind continues to perceive a threat. If this stress response stays turned on, it may contribute to health problems, including:

Research from 2020 suggests that graying hair is a permanent effect of stress. Once the melanocyte stem cells are lost, you can’t regenerate pigments anymore.

They also note the need for more research to understand interactions between the nervous system and stem cells in different tissues and organs. This will aid future research on the impact of stress on the body and the development of new treatments.

The body’s relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. Breathing becomes deeper and slower, the heart rate slows, and the symptoms of stress fade away.

You can do many things to trigger the relaxation response and reduce stress. Consider the following coping strategies to help you relieve stress in your daily life.

Try deep breathing

Purposefully taking slow, deep breaths helps slow your heart rate. Focusing on the breath also helps take your mind off your stress.

  1. Inhale. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 seconds.
  2. Pause. Hold the air in your lungs for 4 seconds.
  3. Exhale. Breathe out slowly through your mouth for 6 seconds.
  4. Repeat. Do this for at least 2 minutes. Slowly work your way up to practicing this exercise for 5-10 minutes.

Consider mindfulness

Mindfulness is the psychological process of actively paying attention to the present moment. Put simply, it’s present moment awareness without judgment.

This allows you to focus on the task at hand rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

There are many apps with tips for practicing mindfulness. You can also try other relaxation exercises like meditation, yoga, and tai chi.

Develop good sleep hygiene

A good night’s sleep can greatly impact your stress level. To improve your sleep hygiene, consider the following tips:

  • Try to keep to a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
  • Limit the use of light-emitting electronics like computers and smartphones before bed.
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and at a cool temperature.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime.

Get regular exercise

Exercise creates the release of “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. These act as natural stress relievers.

2018 research shows that regular physical activity may reduce stress and stress-related risk factors. Try to aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day.

Talk with someone

Sometimes just talking with someone can help. Try reaching out to a trusted friend or family member to talk or laugh and lighten the load.

If you find it difficult to cope or your stress symptoms don’t decrease, it may be time to talk with a professional. There are many resources for finding a therapist or support group to help you deal with the stressors in your daily life.

Research shows that the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response to stress plays a key role in turning hair gray.

Occasional stress is OK. But chronic or persistent stress can contribute to health problems, including headaches, ulcers, and digestive disorders.

Deep breathing, mindfulness, and regular exercise are just a few ways to help manage stress. You may also consider talking with a mental health professional if you want additional support.