Yes, Stress Turns Hair Grey, and Yes, It Is Reversible

One volunteer in the study was able to get five of his hair back to a dark color simply by going on vacation.
Loukia Papadopoulos

We've always known there was a connection between stress and gray hair. In fact, early studies in mice had proven the link. However, up to now, it had not been conclusively demonstrated in humans, leaving place room for doubt if the connection may just be an old wife's tale.

Now, researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons have finally offered quantitative evidence linking psychological stress to graying hair in people for the first time ever. Not to worry though. They also found that the condition is reversible.

“Understanding the mechanisms that allow ‘old’ gray hairs to return to their ‘young’ pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human aging in general and how it is influenced by stress,”  Martin Picard, associate professor of behavioral medicine (in psychiatry and neurology) at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said.

“Our data add to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that human aging is not a linear, fixed biological process but may, at least in part, be halted or even temporarily reversed.”

To track the effect of stress on hair follicles, Picard and his team had to conceive of a new method for capturing highly detailed images of tiny slices of human hairs. Each slice they captured, about 1/20th of a millimeter wide, represented about an hour of hair growth.

The researchers followed 14 volunteers that kept a stress diary in which they rated each week’s level of stress. The researchers were even actually able to measure how some gray hairs naturally regained their original color, something which had never been quantitatively documented before.

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“Just as the rings in a tree trunk hold information about past decades in the life of a tree, our hair contains information about our biological history,” Picard exlained “When hairs are still under the skin as follicles, they are subject to the influence of stress hormones and other things happening in our mind and body."

The researchers also revealed that one volunteer was able to get five of his hair back to a dark color simply by going on vacation. Well, there you have it, folks. Hair does turn gray because of stress but it is reversible.

The study was published on June 22 in eLife.