Whether you’ve recently spotted a single strand of gray hair or you’re already white all over, you may have some questions. What are the causes of gray hair? Is there anything you can do (or could’ve done)? Did you give yourself gray hair by stressing over that one thing? Could a vitamin D deficiency be the cause?
Read on to discover what might cause your gray or white hair.
Why Does Hair Turn White?
The natural color of human hair is actually white. It is colored by a hair pigment called melanin. There are two types of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. They blend together to make up a wide range of hair colors: black, brown, red, blonde, and every shade in between.1
Melanin is produced by stem cells called melanocytes. These stem cells position themselves in hair follicles, the opening of the skin’s surface where the hair grows out.
As each individual hair shaft grows through a follicle, it is infused with melanin.
With age, our melanocytes’ melanin production slows down and slowly fades away. This results in a loss of pigment, leaving us with white or gray hair.2 Why does this happen? It’s a mix of intrinsic factors, like genetics, stress, and aging and environmental factors.
While you might be tempted to blame stress for your gray hair, it’s likely your genes that decide how early and how quickly hair graying occurs.3 Graying hair is a natural part of the aging process.
At some point in the aging process, melanin production dwindles, and the loss of hair pigment begins. There’s a specific gene – identified as IRF4 – that regulates this process.4
Genes determine changes in hair color over time. Genes dictate how early you’ll see grays, when melanin production will stop, and when that gray hair will turn white.5 Some people naturally go gray earlier than others. If your parents had a full head of gray hair in their 30s, odds are you will have a similar fate.
Genetics aside, there are a few factors that can make hair go gray sooner than expected. Nutritional deficiencies can lead to greying of hair. A deficiency in these vitamins has been linked to premature gray hair:
- Vitamin D3
- Vitamin B-5, B-6, B-9, B-126
Does stress cause gray hair and hair loss? While research is ongoing, some scientists say “yes.” Others say “we’re not sure.” Stress hormones can affect the signals that instruct melanocyte stem cells to deliver melanin to the hair follicle. If that signal is disrupted, melanin won’t deliver pigment to your hair.
You can think of it like this: your genes determine the approximate time you’ll go gray. Certain lifestyle factors like stress will give you a variation of plus or minus 5-10 years.9
Extreme stress can also trigger a condition called telogen effluvium, which causes hair to shed at a quick rate. This is a temporary condition. The hair grows back, but there is a chance it could grow in gray instead of its original color.10
In the case of premature gray hair, oxidative stress may also play a role. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells.11
If your body is in a state of oxidative stress, your melanocytes may become damaged. These are the stem cells that help give your hair pigment. One way to potentially slow this down is to eat a diet high in antioxidants. Antioxidants can help protect your body against the effects of oxidative stress.12
Certain Medical Issues
Certain medical issues can cause gray hair. An autoimmune disorder like alopecia areata or vitiligo can cause the immune system to fight against cells in the skin, hair and scalp. This can cause loss of skin or hair pigment or hair loss.13,14
Thyroid problems, like hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, may also cause white hair. An overactive or underactive thyroid can cause your body to produce less melanin.15 If you have any concerns, consult your doctor.
Studies have shown a link between the appearance of gray hair before the age of 30 and cigarette smoking.16 Smoking constricts blood vessels, which can reduce blood flow to the hair follicles. This can cause hair loss and gray hair. Additionally, the toxins in cigarettes can damage hair follicles, causing early white hair.17
Can You Prevent Or Reverse The Premature Graying Of Hair?
It depends on the cause. If your hair is gray due to natural aging and genetic factors, you may not be able to do much. Once hair has gone gray due to age or genetic factors, you can’t naturally restore the former color. Of course, you can dye your hair, but it will continue to grow in gray.18
However, if an underlying health problem has caused premature graying, it may be possible to reverse this. In the case of a vitamin deficiency, some evidence suggests that color may return with supplementation. Talk to your doctor for more information.19
So in this case, it is possible to preserve color and delay the inevitable by making a few lifestyle changes.
Try Special Hair Products
Ask your doctor to recommend an anti-aging hair product that contains polyphenols. Some active ingredients, like Redensyl, have been shown to affect stem cells and reinvigorate hair follicles.20
Address Nutrient Deficiencies
If your hair graying is being caused by a deficiency rather than the natural aging process, addressing the deficiency could help. Make sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need to keep your hair healthy. These include:
- B vitamins, especially B-12 and biotin
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin A
Great food sources of these vitamins and minerals include:
- Chicken, which contains B-12
- Eggs, which are a good source of biotin
- Nuts, a good source of B vitamins and zinc
- Fish, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids
- Leafy greens and seeds, which are good sources of zinc22
Eat More Antioxidants
A well-balanced diet that is rich in antioxidants may help reduce oxidative stress. Antioxidant-rich foods promote skin and hair health. Here are a few to consider:
- Red cabbage
- Sweet potatoes23
If you smoke, consider quitting. Not only will it have a positive impact on your health, but that act alone could push back the age you start graying.24 Consult your doctor for the best ways to stop. Be aware of second-hand smoke, which can cause similar reactions in your body.25
Going gray is a natural process. It mostly depends on your genes, but there are lifestyle factors that can play a role too. If you’re concerned, look at your overall well-being and make sure you’re getting the nutrients and antioxidants your body needs. You could also consider using a high-quality hair dye to cover your grays.
If you aren’t concerned (and many aren’t) wear your gray, natural hair with pride. You’ve earned it.