As we age and grow older, we all expect that certain changes occur in our bodies and outward appearance. One of these changes is that, sooner or later, most of us will experience is gray hair. While it is usual for people in their senior years to have gray hair, many women, and some men, find it worrying to discover premature gray hairs appearing.
In fact, some men and women experience this in their late 20s. Scientists generally agree that after we reach our 30s the chances of gray hair appearing increase about 10-20% every 10 years.
So, what causes hair to turn gray prematurely? If you have premature gray hair, is there anything that you can do to ‘cure’ it?Why Hair Turns Gray?
Our hair is made up of a protein called keratin and the reason our hair has color is thanks to a pigment called melanin. There are two basic types of melanin – dark and light, and they blend together to give our hair its color.
Sometimes we notice that during adolescence years and into our early 20s our hair changes color, usually darker. This is because the body starts producing different amounts of melanin.
So, as long as the body continues to produce enough melanin, we keep our hair color. However, as we age the production of melanin slows down until the hair turns gray then white.
So, the big question is, why does the body stop producing enough melanin? Scientists now think they have found the answer.
Gray Hair Linked to a Gene
For years, scientists have been trying to find why our hair turns gray and now they have found a gene which is linked to gray hair.
A study published in Nature Communications was able, for the first time, to pinpoint a gene which is responsible for gray hair1. The research investigated around 6,000 people from Latin America who had mixed ancestry. It was found that the gene in question is connected to blonde hair in Europe.
Professor Kaustubh Adhikari, who led the study, said that the gene they identified regulates and produces melanin and that melanin production in the body is determined by genetics2.
The study concluded that this gene was the reason for about 30% of participants developing gray hair. The other 70% was due to other factors.
Gray Hair Linked to Age
Research has also shown that there is a definite connection to age and gray hair.
Dr. Desmond Tobin, a professor of cell biology who also took part in the research that discovered the gene link to gray hair, published his own research on how age affects the pigmentation of hair. As we get older age and genetics regulate the decline in pigmentation of each hair follicle. He called this a “melanogentic clock”3.
Now that scientists have established the reasons behind gray hair, it will be possible to conduct further research on solutions to both gray hair in seniors and premature gray hair.
Dr. Tobin concluded that “the future looks bright and colorful for hair pigmentation research.”
Other Factors that Cause Premature Gray Hair
The study into the gray hair gene link showed that it caused gray hair in only about one-third of participants. What are the other factors that cause gray hair to appear? This is what research has shown:
Genetics play a role in gray hair. This means that if there is a family history of premature gray hair, then it is most likely that this will be passed on. Dr. Desmond Tobin, mentioned earlier, discovered this in his research about age and hair pigmentation. He stated that: “entire extended families can experience marked early graying or conversely unusually late graying3.”Smoking
There is a proven link between smoking and premature gray hair. The British Medical Journal carried out research into this link because smokers tend to have facial changes similar to those seen in premature aging, including gray hair. According to the observational study the researchers carried out, they were able to establish a link between smoking and gray hair in both men and women4.
Other research into the effects that smoking has on premature gray hair backs up these claims.
There is more than just anecdotal evidence that oxidative stress and premature gray hair is linked. Oxidative stress happens when there are more free radicals than antioxidants at work in the body.
According to research published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (the FASEB), oxidative stress is related to premature graying. Those people in the study with premature graying showed signs of lower antioxidant levels brought on by factors like poor diet and high levels of stress6.Here are a few ideas on how to prevent oxidative stress:
-Consume food that contains high levels of antioxidants.
-Use meditation techniques to reduce stress.
-Consume vitamin E which was shown to reduce oxidative stress and improve hair growth.Nutritional deficiencies
Vitamins and minerals are responsible for healthy hair, and deficiency of these vitamins and minerals affects hair color and can also cause hair loss.
Research has shown that premature graying of hair has been connected to a vitamin B12 deficiency, as well as low levels of iron, calcium and vitamin D3.
There is also a reported case where a person, who had gray hair, was treated for vitamin B12 deficiency. During the treatment his skin and hair pigmentation returned to normal8.
Other deficiencies that have been linked to gray hair include vitamin C and E as well as low levels of zinc and copper.Hydrogen peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is known as a bleaching agent for hair and has many other uses. However, our hair also naturally produces hydrogen peroxide. A study carried out by the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom showed that oxidative stress causes more hydrogen peroxide to build up in the hair follicles which bleaches the hair color9.
It seems from the various studies that have been carried out that a combination of factors can affect when and how fast a person develops gray hair.Medical/Health conditions
Obesity – A study published on 2015 found a link between obesity and premature gray hair.
Thyroid gland – Problems with your pituitary or thyroid gland can cause premature graying. 13
Vitiligo – Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition in which the melanocytes (the cells that make pigment) are destroyed, and the result is patches of white hair and skin.Cures for Premature Gray Hair
Now that scientists have been able to find out more about the reasons why hair turns gray and what causes premature graying of hair, it is possible to look for solutions to the problem.
Researchers at New York University Langone Medical Center were able to isolate a protein called the Wnt protein. Among many of the functions of the Wnt protein is hair follicle development. The researchers blocked the Wnt protein in black mice. The result was that they eventually turned gray10.
It is thought that in time, this Wnt protein could be added to hair care products to keep pigmentation in our hair follicles for longer.
In another development in looking to “cure” premature gray hair, the FASEB Journal published findings that the hydrogen peroxide in hair follicles can be reversed using a compound called PC-KUS. The compound is applied topically to hair and it blocks hydrogen peroxide from accumulating in the hair follicle. Results show that this can retain hair color and even in some cases restore the original hair color11.
Of course, for many people, having gray hair is not a problem. And, the latest fashion trends have seen more and more people embracing gray as a fashion statement.
If, however, you are looking for a solution to premature gray hair, hope is on the horizon. For the meanwhile, here are natural supplements that are believed to assist in treating premature gray hair.
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