From heart risk to vitamin deficiencies, your hair speaks volumes.
Nobody welcomes those first few strands of gray that make their appearance in the mirror. They’re a sign that we’re getting older, whether they arrive prematurely in our 20s or spare us until we’re in our late 30s.
But in some instances, gray hair may indicate more than our biological age: It could signal one of these health issues.
The Gray Hair ‘Rule of Thumb’
The gray hair “rule of thumb” is that:
By the age of 50, half of the population have lost the color in 50% of their hair.
When researchers tested this rule, they actually found that 74% of people aged between 45 and 65 had grey hair, with an average intensity of 27%.
Hair color is produced by cells known as melanocytes, which migrate into the hair bulb as the hair follicles develop in utero. The melanocytes produce pigment that is incorporated into the growing hair fibers to produce hair in a bewildering array of natural shades.
Hair color depends on the presence and ratios of two groups of melanins: eumelanins (brown and black pigments) and pheomelanins (red and yellow pigments). While variations in the ratio of these pigments can produce an large number of colors and tones, siblings often have strikingly similar hair color.
Hair color varies according to body site, with eyelashes being darkest because they contain high levels of eumalanin. Scalp hair is usually lighter than pubic hair, which often has a red tinge, due to the presence of more pigments. A red tinge is also common in underarm and beard hair, even in people with essentially brown hair on their scalp.
Hormones such as melanocyte-stimulating hormone can darken light hair, as can high levels of estrogen and progesterone, which are produced in pregnancy. Certain drugs such as those to prevent malaria can lighten hair, while some epilepsy medications can darken it.
Hair doesn’t actually “turn” gray.
Once a hair follicle produces hair, the color is set. If a single strand of hair starts out brown (or red or black or blond), it is never going to turn gray.
Your hair follicles produce less color as they age, so when hair goes through its natural cycle of dying and being regenerated, it’s more likely to grow in as gray beginning after age 35. Genetics can play a role in when this starts.
While being under stress can’t turn your hair gray, stress can trigger a common condition called telogen effluvium, which causes hair to shed at about three times faster than normal.
The hair grows back, so the condition doesn’t cause balding. But if you’re middle-aged and your hair is falling out and regenerating more quickly because of stress, it’s possible that the hair that grows in will be gray instead of its original color.
Health Problems and Gray Hair
The vast majority of people with gray hair have age-related graying.
However, sometimes graying hair indicates an illness, especially if it occurs at a particularly young age.
Health problems that may be heralded by gray hair include:
- neurofibromatosis (also called Von Recklinghausen’s disease): this group of inherited diseases causes tumors to grow along nerves and abnormal development of the bones and skin.
- tuberous sclerosis: an uncommon, inherited condition that causes benign tumors in multiple organs (including the brain, heart, kidneys, eyes, lungs, and skin).
- thyroid disease
- vitiligo: this condition causes melanocytes (the cells at the base of hair follicles that produce color) to be lost or destroyed — perhaps because the immune system “misfires” and attacks the scalp rather than an infection.
- alopecia areata: a disorder in which patches of hair may be suddenly lost, especially the colored (non-gray) hairs. This may lead to “overnight” graying because previously present gray or white hairs suddenly become more obvious. When hair growth resumes, it may be white or gray, but colored hair may eventually return.
Some research also links premature graying to heart disease and low bone mass (called osteopenia, a precursor of osteoporosis). How these conditions relate to hair graying is unclear.
Those who are deficient in some vitamins can find their hair turning gray sooner than they had ever anticipated or wanted. These vitamins are found in foods you should already be eating, so start stocking your refrigerator and pantry.
If you know you don’t (and won’t) eat enough of these foods, it’s easy to supplement.
As one of the B-complex of vitamins, vitamin B6, which is found in proteins such as liver, egg yolk, organ meats, vegetables and in whole grain cereals, can help keep your hair from graying.
If you don’t eat sufficient amounts of the foods that are rich in vitamin B6, your hair will lose its natural color. This vitamin assists a cell inside the hair follicle to produce melanin, which gives your hair its color.
Foods which are good sources of vitamin B6 include milk, salmon, tuna, eggs, chicken liver, beef, carrots, spinach, sweet potato, green peas, bananas, chickpeas, and avocados.
You can also increase your intake by taking a daily vitamin B6 supplement.
Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)
A 2016 study published in the journal Menopause Review found that pantothenic acid, also known as vitamin B5 may prevent premature hair graying and restore its natural color.
The study also concluded that pantothenic acid assists proper hair growth due to its part in cell division in hair follicle and gives hair proper moisture, has anti-inflammatory properties, protects, has moisturizing abilities, regulates functioning of sebum glands and accelerates the creation of melanin.
Foods rich in vitamin B5 are eggs, avocados, green leafy vegetables, potatoes, beef, chicken, nuts and legumes, or you can take a pantothenic acid supplement.
There is evidence to suggest that increased biotin intake may help promote hair growth and health.
For example, in one 2015 study, women with thinning hair were given an oral marine protein supplement (MPS) containing biotin or a placebo pill twice per day for 90 days.
At the beginning and end of the study, digital images were taken of the affected areas on the scalp. Each participant’s hair was also washed and any shed hairs were counted.
The researcher found that women who took the biotin supplement experienced a significant amount of hair growth in the areas affected by hair loss. They also had less shedding.
A 2012 study by the same researcher produced similar results: participants perceived improvement in hair growth and quality after 90 and 180 days.
There is still much to learn about biotin’s effect on hair. At the very least, even if biotin can’t prevent or reverse the greying, it can make your hair thicker and healthier (reason enough to include it in your diet!).
Foods which are good sources of biotin are liver and animal meats, egg yolk, nuts, seeds, and legumes, salmon, dairy products, avocados, sweet potato, and cauliflower. You can also take a biotin supplement.
Oxidative Stress on Your Hair Follicles
Hair follicles produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, a chemical that has been used for decades as an inexpensive way to lighten or bleach hair. However, if a hydrogen peroxide buildup occurs, your hair color may start to fade.
A 2013 study published in the journal Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that people who are going gray develop oxidative stress via accumulation of hydrogen peroxide in the hair follicle, which causes our hair to bleach itself from the inside out.
Your Immune System May Need a Boost
Your hair develops its color from melanocyte stem cells, which live inside the follicles. When your old hair falls out, the stem cells add melanocytes to new follicles — giving your hair its color. When the cells stop working, the follicles no longer develop pigment.
According to an April 2018 study on mice, when the immune system is attacked it can affect the MITF protein which helps melanocytes function. Researchers found that certain mice with genetic mutations for the MITF protein will have their immune systems overreact to fight viruses which causes melanocytes to no longer form — leading to sudden graying.
While the study hasn’t been confirmed with humans, researchers believe it sheds light on how a weakened immune system can cause sudden graying.
You Smoke (Or Used to)
A 2013 study published in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal found that smokers are two and half times more likely to develop premature gray hair than people who do not smoke.
Plus, smoking can go one step further in damaging your tresses: certain chemicals in smoke break down in hair cells, which leads to baldness, according to the New York Times.
Men: Heart Disease Risk
Premature greying is associated with a greater risk of heart disease before the age of 40 than obesity, according to a new study from India.
Does this mean that doctors should be screening our hairline alongside traditional risk factors such as our weight and blood pressure?
The study, presented at the 69th Annual Conference of the Cardiological Society of India, looked at coronary artery disease, a major form of cardiovascular disease.
They specifically studied men under the age of 40. This is important as the classical risk factors are not as good at predicting cardiovascular disease in younger people. This study investigated the links between premature hair greying, hair loss and coronary artery disease in young Indian men.
The researchers, from the UN Mehta Institute of Cardiology and Research Centre in Ahmedabad, compared men under 40 with coronary artery disease with age-matched healthy men. All participants had their degree of coronary artery disease measured using a variety of clinical tests. Participants also had their hair whiteness rated (along with their baldness).
When the researchers compared results between the two groups, they found that men with coronary artery disease had significantly higher rates of premature greying (50% versus 30%) and male-pattern baldness (49% versus 27%).
Premature greying was associated with a 5.3 times greater risk of coronary artery disease.
Interestingly, these hair-related factors were apparently better predictors of coronary artery disease risk than obesity, which was only associated with a 4.1 times greater risk. In fact, all of the ‘classical’ risk factors were worse at predicting coronary artery disease than premature greying (and male pattern baldness).
Your Family History
This we know: If your parents or grandparents went gray and did so early, then chances are you will, too.
But in a relatively new twist, this 2016 study found the exact gene responsible for gray hair. The study looked at the genomes of more than 6,000 people from Latin America and identified 18 genes that influence hair traits, including IRF4, which previously was known for producing light hair in people of European origin but now is associated with gray hair.
“This is the first time a gene for graying has been identified in humans,” said lead author Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari, a researcher at University College London, in a press release. “As hair grays something happens that causes this gene to produce even lower levels of melanin. Now we can ask more specific functional questions,” Adhikari told Newsweek.
Then again, if you’re sporting the salt-and-pepper look these days, it may mean simply that you’ve accumulated some life experience and earned your stripes — whether you choose to dye them or not.
If you’re healthy, and have started ‘going’ grey prematurely, don’t worry!
Many people believe that if you develop grey hair early in life, you are likely to have a shorter life span, but that’s not true.
There is no evidence to suggest any correlation between greying of hair and life expectancy.
On a personal note, my grandmother started going grey at ripe old age of 18, and she lived a long and healthy life.
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