Does Stress Cause Grey or White Hair?

woman with grey hair

Anna Frank / Getty Images

Is your age to blame for those pesky frosted strands? Or is something else going on? Simply put, stress can potentially cause grey or white hair.

This article discusses the causes of grey and white hair, how stress plays a role in this, whether it is permanent and some tips to help prevent those premature greys.

What Makes Your Hair Grey or White?

The color of your hair is determined by the amount of melanin in it. Pigment cells in your hair follicles called ‘melanocytes’ produce melanin. These cells start to die off as you age. With fewer pigment cells, there is less melanin in the hair follicles. Eventually, your hair grows without melanin and it becomes grey and then white.

Genetics Play a Role

Genetics plays an important role in determining when your hair starts turning grey. Looking at how early it happened to your parents and/or grandparents is a good indicator of when it will happen to you.

Smoking

Smoking has been shown to be a cause of premature grey hair. A 2013 study showed that smokers were two and half times more likely to develop premature hair greying than non-smokers.

The study explained that smoking is associated with increased oxidative stress which can lead to pigment cell damage and an earlier reduction of melanin in hair follicles.

Illnesses

There are several illnesses that can also cause grey hair at a young age. These include:

  • Autoimmune diseases: Alopecia and vitiligo are diseases where the immune system attacks its own cells including melanocytes. This can cause grey or white hair.
  • Vitamin B12 Deficiency: Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that helps form red blood cells and is required for healthy brain and nerve function. It plays an important role in hair growth. A diet deficient in this vitamin can reduce melanin production by weakening pigment cells. 
  • Thyroid Disease: The thyroid is a gland that produces hormones with a significant role in controlling your metabolism. Thyroid dysfunction can cause a reduction in hair pigmentation.

How Does Stress Affect Your Hair Color?

A study published in Nature in 2020 provides a potential explanation of how stress affects the color of people's hair. *(Please note that this study is an animal study rather than a human study.)*

The researchers used mice to determine if stress could cause hair to turn grey. They had three groups, each exposed to a different level of stress. All the mice showed hair loss and increased hair greying. The study determined that noradrenaline (norepinephrine) was the reason for this occurrence.

Your Body Releases Neurotransmitters When You Are Under Stress

When you are stressed, your body responds by releasing the neurotransmitter, noradrenaline as part of your “fight-or-flight" reaction. Under normal circumstances, pigment-producing stem cells remain inactive until new hair growth occurs. 

However, noradrenaline activates these stem cells too early and causes them to move away from the hair follicle’s color reserves. With fewer stem cells to turn into pigment cells or melanocytes, less melanin can be produced. Any hair that grows afterward will lack color.

The study was conducted with mice; therefore, the relationship between stress and premature hair greying still needs to be further investigated.

Are Grey and White Hairs Permanent?

Yes—for the most part. When there are no more pigment cells in a hair follicle, melanin cannot be produced and the effect is permanent.

Greying Might Be Reversible for Some People

However, a study published showed that greying may be reversible for some people. Single hair samples were collected and analyzed from 14 participants. The participants were asked to rate their level of stress in a diary on a weekly basis. 

A high-resolution scanner was used to examine the strands of hair and observe tiny variations in color. The changes in the hair were compared to the recordings made in the stress diaries.

Reduce Your Stress, Lose the Greys

The results showed that some gray hairs reverted to their natural color when the person’s stress levels decreased.

Tips for Preventing Premature Grey Hair

Managing stress is a healthy goal regardless of its effect on how you look. Although aging is inevitable, it doesn't mean we can’t feel good about ourselves as the years go by. Taking care of our physical and mental health is something that will pay dividends in the long run.

Here are some tips to prevent premature greying:

  • Maintain a well-balanced diet: A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and fish and low in saturated fats and processed foods can ensure you have sufficient essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals for healthy hair. Eating well has been shown to help decrease the effects of aging and reduce stress. When you’re feeding your body the right fuel, it will function optimally.
  • Stay active: Regular exercise is good for your mood and your body. Physical activity can help reduce stress, depression, and anxiety and boost self-esteem.
  • Practice sun safety: The UV radiation from the sun can cause hair loss and decreased pigmentation. Wearing a hat, covering up, putting sunscreen on, and limiting the time in the sun can help reduce hair damage.
  • Spend time with loved ones: Regular contact with friends and family can do wonders for your emotional and mental well-being. Social connectedness has been shown to improve mental health, protect against depression and lower the risk of mortality.
  • Embrace aging: It’s counterproductive to worry about those grey hairs because the more you stress, the more they come. Getting older is a normal and natural process. Instead of worrying about how you look, let go of what you think it means to be old and embrace your transformation.

You Can Always Dye Your Hair If You'd Like

At the end of the day, if the color of your hair is negatively affecting your self-confidence and how you feel about yourself, you may want to consider dyeing it.

If you notice your hair is greying significantly without any major changes in your lifestyle or routine, please consult with your doctor to rule out potential medical issues.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. Her expertise in facilitating, storytelling, coaching, and promoting tough and honest conversations provides the foundation for her site, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.