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Gray hair is viewed by many as a sign of wisdom, experience, and maturity, while others view it as a negative sign of old age and impending mortality. But whether you see it as just a natural progression of life or a cosmetic blemish that should be concealed, gray hair can also be a sign of the quality of your health.
How does your hair turn gray, exactly? Well, your hair follicles contain a pigment called melanin, which gives your hair its natural color. Pigment cells called melanocytes are responsible for injecting melanin into your hair follicles. As you get older, however, your body begins to reduce its melanocyte production, thus, turning your hair gray and, eventually, white.
Once your hair turns gray, there’s no medical procedure to permanently reverse the process, but experts are getting closer to understanding how genetics play a role in when we go gray and how they can use that knowledge to reverse the process in the future.
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Gray Hair Causes
One thing we do know for certain is that age and genetics aren’t the only factors in melanocyte reduction. Hormones can also play a role in how early your hair turns gray, as can certain medical conditions and external factors, such as:
- Vitiligo: This disease causes the melanocytes in your skin to die or stop functioning, but it can also affect your hair and the inside of your mouth.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency: Medical experts aren’t entirely sure why gray hair is a symptom, but B vitamins are linked to hair health in general. For more information on vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms, check out “Vitamin B12 Deficiency Symptoms Can Range Beyond Fatigue.”
- Coronary artery disease: According to research conducted by the European Society of Cardiology, young male participants with coronary artery disease had a 50 percent higher prevalence of premature graying and 49 percent more prevalence of male-pattern baldness, compared to healthy participants. After adjusting for age and other risk factors, researchers also found that premature graying was associated with a 5.3 times greater risk of coronary artery disease.
- Hyperthyroidism: Some medical experts believe that an overactive thyroid can cause premature graying, although the reasons are unclear.
- Exposure to chemicals and pollutants: A study published in 2013 found a correlation between smoking and premature hair graying before the age of 30, while another study found that the small amount of hydrogen peroxide naturally present in our hair follicles can often build up and cause gray hair.
GRAY HAIR FACTS & FICTION
The following are common statements made about gray hair. Can you guess which are facts and which are fiction?
“Ethnicity plays a role in how early you go gray.” True! Caucasians tends to go gray earlier than Asians and African -Americans, according the National Institutes of Health.
“Plucking one gray hair will cause more to grow.” False! This is an old wives’ tale. In fact, the opposite will happen. The more you pluck that gray hair, the more damage is done to the follicle. Eventually, that hair will stop growing back.
“Gray hair is finer than pigmented hair.” True! You may have thought the opposite, but that’s because as we age, our scalp produces less oil, making our hair feel coarser and drier. To combat dryness and add body to your fine-textured hair, use moisturizing and volumizing conditioners and styling aids.
“Stress can cause gray hair.” Mostly false, but partly true. Stress doesn’t actually cause your hair to turn gray, but it can temporarily cause your hair to shed quicker than normal, according to CNN.com. And the more your body goes through the shedding and re-growing process, the more pigment is produced to color your hair. Once this pigment runs out, then gray hair appears.
The Genetics Behind Gray Hair
While there are many factors that could result in our hair turning gray, medical experts may be closer to finding a way to reverse it by studying genetics.
In 2017, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center identified the cells that are responsible for both gray hair and balding. Using mice, they discovered a protein called KROX20 that “turns on” in skin cells that eventually make up the hair shaft. These cells then produce a protein called stem cell factor (SCF) that is essential for hair pigmentation.
When researchers deleted the SCF gene in the mice subjects, their hair turned white, and when they deleted the KROX20 protein, the mice became bald, according to the study. The researchers concluded that with KROX20 and SCF both present in the hair shaft cells, they interact with melanocyte cells and then grow into pigmented hairs.
“With this knowledge, we hope in the future to create a topical compound or to safely deliver the necessary gene to hair follicles to correct these cosmetic problems,” said Dr. Lu Le, Associate Professor of Dermatology with the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern.
Two years prior, researchers were able to identify the first gene linked to gray hair called IRF4 based on a study of 6,000 people with a mix of European, Native American, and African ancestry living in five Latin American countries. Published in Nature Communications, the study made a connection between gray hair and a specific variation of IRF4 seen only in people of European descent, who are at a higher risk of premature graying.
Lead author Kaustub Adikari, a statistical genetics postdoc at University College London, however, estimated that the IRF4 gene only accounts for about 30 percent of gray hair with other internal and external factors accounting for the rest.
Managing Gray Hair
Until experts find an effective way to reverse gray hair to its original color, here are three ways to manage the change:
- Dye it. You can do this yourself at home, but you might want to consider a professional coloring treatment to find the hue that’s best for your personal style and skin tone.
- Embrace it. Believe or not, gray, silver, and white hair is in style right now. Try a new cut or style to complement your gray hair and find a manageable regimen that will keep your hair shiny and healthy-looking.
- Protect it. If you haven’t gone gray just yet, try delaying the process by maintaining a healthy, balanced diet and visiting your doctor for a check-up at least once a year to stay ahead of any medical issues.