Can Stress Cause Gray Hair? Separating Fact From Fiction

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated July 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Hair tends to naturally turn gray during the aging process as hair follicles begin producing less and less pigment, typically starting around the age of 35.

Although you probably cannot stop or reverse normal graying that occurs as you age, research suggests that reducing chronic stress may reverse early graying in some people. Stress can accelerate the process of graying by causing oxidative stress and improper signaling in hair follicles.

If you are experiencing stress in your life, you might want to consider adopting healthier lifestyle habits, incorporating relaxation techniques into your life, or seeking the guidance of a licensed therapist. Certain illnesses and vitamin deficiencies can also lead to premature or abrupt graying, so you may wish to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician to rule out underlying causes.

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What causes hair to turn gray?

Your hair's color comes from melanin, the same pigment that gives your skin its color. Every hair follicle has a set number of melanin-producing cells, called melanocytes. The pigment-producing stem cells, also called melanocyte stem cells, are found at the base of the hair follicles.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the natural process of hair graying is due to the slow decline in these melanocyte stem cells as you age. At some point, melanin in the follicle may become completely absent, resulting in white hair. The age at which graying begins varies based mostly on underlying genetic factors, with environmental factors (including stress, smoking, illness, and exposure to radiation) possibly playing a role. Most people starting to notice gray hairs in their mid-thirties or early forties.

How can stress cause early graying?

Although stress has not been shown to directly turn hair gray, research has shown that it may accelerate the graying process by increasing oxidative stress in the hair bulbs. Studies have shown that oxidative stress, which makes reactive free radicals that can damage cells, may damage melanocytes directly and result in loss of pigment. Additionally, stress increases the production of noradrenaline, which can alter signaling and cause melanocytes to leave the reserve in the hair follicle, resulting in further loss of pigment.

Stress-induced hair graying may be reversible. According to a study conducted at Columbia University, stress-induced graying may be reversible. In this study, when chronic stress was reduced, many study participants began regaining melanocyte melanin production in their hair follicles and new hair growth regained color.

Other causes of graying

Vitamin B-12 deficiency, thyroid disease, neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, vitiligo, alopecia areata, and cigarette smoking can all lead to a loss of hair pigment. If you have sudden hair loss, premature hair loss, or any unexplained symptoms, you might consider consulting doctor. They can conduct various blood tests to evaluate whether you might have an underlying health condition or deficiency that is contributing to graying.

When vitamin B-12 deficiency is corrected through dietary or supplement changes, hair graying may be reversible. However, smoking can cause damage to hair follicles, and the resulting premature graying may not be reversible.

What to do when your hair turns gray or white

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Hair graying is often seen as a sign of aging, and premature hair graying, hair loss, and hair thinning can cause significant stress and affect a person’s self-esteem. If you believe that premature or abrupt graying may be due to an underlying medical condition or chronic stress, you may wish to seek out professional help. In some instances, premature graying may be reversible through medication, nutritional supplementation, or psychotherapy aimed at stress reduction.

While graying caused by environmental factors may be preventable or reversible, normal graying occurs as we age, and it is typically not preventable. For most people, hair dyes may be the best treatment option for dealing with the cosmetic concerns of graying hair.

There are many types of hair dyes available on the market, from temporary to permanent dyes. Since hair shafts devoid of melanin are typically more delicate and vulnerable to breakage, you may achieve the best hair dying results by seeking out the guidance of a licensed hair stylist. In addition to providing insight on the best dye types and colors for your hair, they may be able to recommend color-safe shampoos and conditioners that will help you maintain color for longer.

While aging can be stigmatized in some cultures, you may benefit from accepting aging. If you are considering letting your gray hair grow out, you might find it helpful to incorporate lowlights or highlights, remove residual hair dye, or dye all of your hair gray to smooth out the transitional period.

Effects of stress

In addition to accelerating the rate of hair graying, chronic stress can cause long-term inflammation, hinder immune function, and contribute to the development of behaviors that lead to hypertension and various diseases. Additionally, chronic stress can harm mental health and lead to worsening symptoms of some mental health conditions. Chronic stress may contribute to the development or worsening of the following diseases and conditions:

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Major depressive disorder

  • Substance use disorder

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Stroke

  • Obesity

  • Asthma

  • Insomnia

  • High blood pressure

  • Certain types of cancer

Lowering your stress

Though chronic stress can be harmful to your health (and hair color), there are steps you can take to relieve it, including the following:

Exercise

Routine physical activity can reduce stress by increasing the level of endorphins (a natural mood booster) released by your body, helping you recenter your mind, improving sleep quality, and reducing muscle tension. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress hormones, and clinical trials have found that exercise can help some people with anxiety disorders and/or depression.

Avoid excessive substance use

Alcohol, caffeine, smoking, and unprescribed drugs can all increase stress. For example, excess caffeine consumption can elevate stress, raise your heart rate, and cause racing thoughts, making stress and anxiety worse. Although some people may use these substances to relieve their stress, it’s typically not effective in the long term.

Keep a gratitude journal

By taking time every day to write down what you’re thankful for, you can help yourself center positive things in your life. Studies show that gratitude journals may help you reduce your stress, improve your sleep quality, and reduce symptoms of depression.

Practice deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or mindfulness

Meditation has been shown to help people reduce worrying, improve self-awareness, and improve mood. Additionally, meditation can be practiced anywhere (such as on a walk or while you’re waiting for the bus), and it is generally free or low-cost. Similarly,  and can be practiced for free with the use of online instructional videos. However, you may prefer to seek out a group class where you can get feedback from an instructor and meet new people.

Make time for family and friends

A strong support system may help you lower your stress and manage anxiety. Spending time with loved ones can increase the production of oxytocin, a neurochemical that can facilitate bonding and relaxation.

Therapy for stress

Life stressors and mental health challenges can make it difficult to handle stress on your own. If you feel overwhelmed by stress or worry, it may be a good idea to try therapy. A licensed therapist may be able to assist you in changing negative thinking patterns and developing healthy coping mechanisms.

Some people with chronic stress may prefer online therapy because it eliminates the need to commute to sessions. A 2018 study found that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was effective at reducing stress in individuals with adjustment disorder and exhaustion disorder. Another study found that both videoconference-based CBT and in-office CBT were effective for reducing symptoms of stress.

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With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist via phone or video chat at a time that works for you. You can also contact your therapist in between sessions through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. 

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Takeaway

Hair naturally goes gray as we age, typically starting around the mid-thirties. Stress can contribute to premature graying or accelerate the rate of graying indirectly through oxidative stress and altered stem cell signaling that affects melanin production in hair follicles. You may be able to reverse graying caused by stress through meditation, exercise, healthy lifestyle habits, and socializing. If you cannot seem to reduce your stress on your own or if you’d like to talk to someone about it, you can reach out to a therapist. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people cope with stress. Take the first step toward reduced stress and improved self-confidence and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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