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The Root of Your Grey Hair

How often do you find yourself in front of the mirror looking for yet another grey hair? Grey hair is one of the most obvious signs of aging. And while it is completely natural, there are some lifestyle factors that can spur the greying of hair.

In this blog, we explore why and how hair turns grey and what you can do to reverse it.

hair, grey, premature grey, greying, old, age

Hair greying 101:

One of the most infamous signs of aging is the gradual loss of hair color. For most people, their hair will begin to fade to grey around 30 or 40 years old. Greying before the age of 20 for Caucasians and before 30 for those of African descent is considered to be premature. It seems like more and more people are beginning to grey far earlier in life. This is due to a number of different lifestyle and genetic factors.

But, before we delve into why and how hair turns grey, it’s important to understand how the life cycle of hair works in the first place.

During hair growth, melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) produce the pigment that incorporates color into the hair by cells within the hair follicle. Genetics will determine what kind of pigment the melanocytes will produce. There are only two kinds of pigment:

  1. Eumelanin → produces black and brown colors

  2. Pheomelanin → produces orange and yellow colors

The exact mechanisms of hair pigmentation and color loss are still unknown. But researchers speculate that a protein called stem cell factor plays a pivotal role in the process. This protein is a requirement for the production of pigment by melanocytes. Research has demonstrated that when this protein is absent, melanin production decreases and hair color is lost.

Another factor behind the greying of hair revolves around the production of hydrogen peroxide by the cells in our hair bulb. Hydrogen peroxide is a metabolic byproduct and the enzyme catalase is used to break it down to water and oxygen. But, as we age and due to other lifestyle factors, catalase levels decline, and this buildup of hydrogen peroxide will damage and destroy melanocytes.

So now that you understand how hair turns grey, we can delve into why hair turns grey.

Factors behind hair color loss:

Both genetic predisposition and environmental factors play a role in why and when your hair begins to turn grey. Research has already demonstrated that your genetics will largely determine when you go grey. And unfortunately, if genetics are behind your grey hair, there is little you can do. However, if environmental factors are behind your greying hair, there is some hope.

The environmental factors behind grey hair include:

Nutrient Deficiencies

Research has demonstrated that a vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to premature hair greying. However, the exact mechanism behind this is still unknown. Those will vitamin B12 deficiencies are more likely to develop grey hair than people without the deficiency.

Deficiencies in vitamin B6, biotin, vitamin D, and vitamin D have also been linked to premature hair greying. One study found that nutritional deficiencies in vitamin D-3, vitamin B-12, and copper affect hair pigmentation. A second study found that low levels of vitamin B-12 and serum ferritin (which stores iron in the body) are common in patients with premature hair greying.

These studies also suggest that if this nutrient deficiency is reversed, hair greying might also be prevented. But we'll return to this later.


Smoking is a known risk factor for premature greying. One study found that smokers are 2 ½ times more likely to start greying before the age of 30 than non-smokers. A later study demonstrated that young men are more likely to start greying prematurely if they smoke.

Researchers hypothesize that smoking causes premature greying because it produces free radicals in the body. There is again hope that if you stop smoking, your hair might regain color.

Lifestyle Stressors

Stress has long been a disputed cause of grey hair. But a recent study from Harvard University seems to offer the strongest suggestion for the claim. The researchers found that the body’s natural response to stress, the sympathetic nervous system, could be a large factor behind grey hair. The sympathetic nervous system is comprised of nerves all over the body, including hair follicles.

During the stress response, the chemical norepinephrine is released. Norepinephrine causes the pigment-producing stem cells, melanocytes, to activate prematurely. This will deplete the hair’s “reserves” of color. And once this reserve is gone, it is difficult for them to regenerate.

A second study from New York University also offered evidence that stress can deplete melanocytes and cause the loss of hair color.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress has been implicated in numerous studies as a major player in the aging process. Free radicals are the culprits behind oxidative stress. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules with unpaired electrons that cause damage to DNA, proteins, cellular structural membranes, and lipids. Oxidative stress is caused by numerous factors:

  • Insufficient antioxidants

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Environmental toxins

  • Physical inactivity

  • Circadian rhythm dysregulation

  • Infections

  • Psychological stress

The body usually has a number of defense mechanisms against free radicals, such as antioxidative enzymes (catalase, glutathione peroxidase) and non-enzymatic antioxidative molecules (vitamin E, vitamin C, glutathione). But, as we age, the production of free radicals increases, and our protection against free radicals decreases. This imbalance will lead to the manifestation of the symptoms of aging.

As mentioned earlier, human hair shafts accumulate hydrogen peroxide as it grows. While hydrogen peroxide is not a free radical, it is still a source of oxidative stress. Without the nutrients and antioxidants to rid the shaft of hydrogen peroxide, an accumulation will lead to the greying of hair.

Multiple studies have demonstrated a link between oxidative stress and the greying of hair.

  • One study found that premature grey hair is closely linked to factors that cause oxidative stress.

  • A second study found that grey hair follicles contain far fewer antioxidants and catalase protein than non-grey hairs.

However, the symptoms of oxidative stress are often far more serious than hair turning grey. Oxidative stress has also been linked to the development of conditions like:

  • Cancer

  • Inflammatory disorders

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Alzheimer’s disease

  • Diabetes

  • Parkinson’s disease

Reversing grey hair:

Luckily, research has demonstrated that the greying process can actually be reversed. This phenomenon was first seen by a dermatologist in 1972 who noticed a man’s hair that was naturally dark at the root and grey on the ends. This is obviously the opposite of the normal greying process.

This phenomenon was further supported by a more recent study that examined the process of greying reversal and its links to psychological well-being. The researchers found 14 men and women from the ages of 9 to 39 from various ethnic backgrounds that had hair that showed evidence of grey hair regaining color. The participants submitted multiple strands of hair from different parts of their bodies for examination.

From the samples, the researchers were able to demonstrate that 10 of the 14 participants had strands of hair that had regained color. Unfortunately, this only occurred for people whose hair had not fully turned grey. As the researchers found a “point of no return” where hair follicles are too far gone to be reversed. But the researchers were still able to convincingly show that greying is reversible.

The researchers also examined the link between greying hair and psychological stress. The researchers identified segments in single hairs where color changes happened in the pigmentation process. They then calculated the approximate date of the change using the average hair growth rate and matched this with the history of stressful events throughout the year that participants had provided. The analysis demonstrated that greying correlated with significant stress, while the reversal of greying correlated with periods of significant relaxation.

  • One man had five strands of hair that regained color during his 2-week vacation.

  • One woman had strands that became grey during 2 months of marital separation and relocation, her most high-stress period of the year.

While this study offers very interesting evidence for the regaining of hair color after greying, there is still more work to be done before the claim can be widely accepted. The researchers are now working on another experiment that would examine hair color changes and stress levels throughout the study, instead of looking at past events.

If you suffer from prematurely greying hair, it is likely that there are underlying factors behind them. Nutrient deficiencies, oxidative stress, smoking, and lifestyle stressors could all be factors. And while grey hair isn’t a life-threatening condition, other, more serious symptoms of the aforementioned conditions could be lurking.

We recommend getting a blood work panel completed to find the true root of the problems. It also wouldn’t hurt to make sure your mitochondria and thyroid and both functioning properly.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!