Scientists have found the cause, and the discovery may help us deal with stress more effectively
Can stress really make your hair go grey? Yes, and now, thanks to scientists at Harvard University, we know why, and the discovery may help lead to better treatments for the effects of stress on our health.
According to a study published in the journal Nature, stress leads to greying by damaging the pigment-regenerating cells in hair follicles. The damage is caused by the chemical norepinephrine, which is released throughout the nervous system when you experience a flight-or-flight response.
“When we started to study this, I expected that stress was bad for the body—but the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined,” said senior author and Harvard professor Ya-Chieh Hsu. “After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost. Once they’re gone, you can’t regenerate pigment anymore. The damage is permanent.”
Hsu hopes the findings will lead researchers to a better understanding of other ways stress negatively affects the body.
“By understanding precisely how stress affects stem cells that regenerate pigment, we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding how stress affects other tissues and organs in the body,” Hsu said. “Understanding how our tissues change under stress is the first critical step towards eventual treatment that can halt or revert the detrimental impact of stress.”
The findings have also caused Harvard researchers to reflect on whether the flight-or-flight response is truly helpful from an evolutionary point of view.
“Acute stress, particularly the fight-or-flight response, has been traditionally viewed to be beneficial for an animal’s survival,” explained postdoctoral fellow Bing Zhang, another lead author on the study. The fight-or-flight response provides animals—including humans—with the added energy needed to escape or counter a threat. “But in this case, acute stress causes permanent depletion of stem cells,” he said.
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