I am here to say that I am a (barely) 40-year-old woman, and ever since I had my first child 3+ years ago, I’ve been sprouting gray hairs like it’s my job.
Because of the aforementioned toddler (and his subsequent brother), I also don’t have the time to color them, so I guess this is me, now.
Can I actually blame my kids, though, or is the timing just a coincidence? If I was 15 years younger, would this be happening?
According to science, probably. Because it really is your kids’ fault.
Statistically, if you have the genes that cause graying hair, at least 50% of the hair on your head will be gray by the time you turn 50. But things like sleep-deprivation, stress, and the 18 years of madness we call parenting can also speed up the process.
A new study out of Harvard University has all but proven the link between stress and gray hair. The researchers involved found the nerves responsible for the “fight or flight” response in animals also depletes the stem cells responsible for hair pigment. In mice, depleting those cells caused them to develop patches of gray or white hair.
What happens is that the emergency flight or fight response is activated in sympathetic nerves that reach into each hair follicle, releasing a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline. The transmitter causes the stem cells that give hair their pigment, melanocyte stem cells, to proliferate in large numbers before abandoning their posts. With fewer of these cells present in each follicle, the hair fades until its completely white.
In mice, the instances of graying and white hair began within five days of causing them acute stress.
More research will follow that attempts to understand the connection between the sympathetic nervous system and hair color change, the study’s lead author, Ya-Chieh Hsu, told Fatherly they hope this is an important first step.
“The reason we’re hopeful the mechanisms are related is that both of these systems (pigment-producing stem cells and sympathetic nerve) are very similar in mice and humans.”
Usually, the body returns to a normal state after confronting a flight or fight threat, but if it’s overactivated or the exposure plays on repeat (hello, babies and toddlers), the chronic stress will be an ongoing strain on the nervous system.”
“This research is critical to helping scientists understand how stress affects tissue repair in the body,” said Dr. Hsu.
Which all to say that no, there won’t be a new and improved way to hide the evidence of your stress from the world, and besides, your genetics will get you eventually.
For now, though, rest assured that you’re not lying to your child when you inform them that they’ve given you yet another gray hair.