A stressful life may send your blood pressure through the roof, but it won’t turn your hair gray. And while junk food and karma will certainly catch up with you too, they won’t contribute to your silver fox status either, says Jeffrey Benabio, M.D., Physician Director of Healthcare Transformation at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA.
Instead, going gray early is almost always hereditary. And while, for most people, the process begins around age 35—and by age 50, 50 percent of people are 50 percent gray, Benabio says—for some, hair changes as early as age 20.
Why Hair Grays
Hair turns gray because the pigment cells called melanocytes in the base of each hair follicle stop making pigment or color, says Benabio.
Scientists aren’t sure what causes this. What they do know: Hair goes through three phases—a growing phase, a resting phase, and a falling out phase, says Benabio. (Women have a longer growing phase, which means they can grow longer hair.) And it could be that as we age, shortened stages of hair growth lead to less pigment—when only a little pigment is produced, we have gray hair, he says.
Another factor: hydrogen peroxide, a natural oxidant. “We produce an enzyme called catalase that breaks down hydrogen peroxide,” says Benabio. “As catalase function decreases, the levels of hydrogen peroxide increase—and high levels of hydrogen peroxide block the production of pigment, leading to gray hair.”
Is Graying Normal?
Ultimately, graying is a normal, slow process—and Benabio says that hair-based melanocytes eventually peter out in everyone. It’s just the timing that differs. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, when we go gray tends to be something handed down in DNA,” confirms David E. Bank, M.D., and director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, & Laser Surgery. In fact, science has pinpointed a handful of genes on both sides of the family (so forget that old wive’s tale that you’ll get mom’s hair) that contribute to pigmentation. Sometimes genes skip a generation, too, so a young-but-gray grandparent could be to blame for your gray hair.
But if you don’t seem to have any younger grays in your family—and you do see a change in hair color happening very rapidly or abruptly out of nowhere—see your doc just in case, says Bank. Vitamin B12 deficiencies, untreated thyroid issues, and types of anemia have been correlated with a loss of pigmentation, Bank says.
What to Do
Unfortunately, there’s not much to do about a head of gray at the moment. Besides dying your hair, for now, Benabio’s advice might be the best: embrace it.
Tomorrow’s answer may be different: “There is some investigative work being done,” says Bank. And although it sounds sci-fi, Bank says that some sort of gene therapy—being able to transplant color-producing cells and re-initiate or recreate color—or perhaps using stem cells to grow new follicles that contain pigment could be solutions of the future.
“The two steps are going to be identifying and mapping all of the genes involved, then being able to get to a point where we were able to alter those genes to mirror those of people who don’t [go gray] early on,” Bank says.