Once you become a person of a certain age, there’s no avoiding those gray hairs that start to come in alongside your natural colored ones. If you have dark hair they’re probably more noticeable, but we all deal with it – and the hair dye industry is worth billions of dollars because honestly, we’d rather not.
Interestingly, science can actually reverse the graying process that happens on our heads…even though they don’t totally understand how it works.
Researchers at Columbia University recently published a first-of-its-kind study that created a computer model of how graying hair is associated with both age and in response to stressful events.
They identified 323 proteins that tell us whether a hair was gray, white, or colored during its history, then cut all types of hairs from participants who rated the recent stress levels in their lives.
And get this – de-stressing your life can actually bring the color back to hairs that have previously gone gray (so you might want to think twice about plucking them).
Ayelet Rosenberg, the lead author on the study, confirmed this fact in a statement.
“I was not surprised by any of the stressors that correspond with graying; I was surprised to see how strong of an impact a vacation had on the reversal of graying. One participant went on just a 2-week trip, and amazingly enough, five of their hairs regained color afterward.”
That said, if you’re over 40 don’t get too excited – they did not see this reversing effect on older study participants at all.
Still, there’s reason to celebrate – and to pay attention if you see gray hairs sprouting while you’re still below that “middle age” mark. Preventative medicine is key to a long and happy life, and Rosenberg says that seeing gray hairs could indicate stress levels that might be wreaking havoc beneath the surface.
“Hair is unique, because it is a visible change that also indicates changes happening on a cellular level. The ideal outcome would be for doctors to one day be able to use hair pigment as a diagnostic tool, using our method. If somebody did have a sudden onset of gray hairs, it would be worth looking at their stress levels that correspond to that point in their life.”
Stem cells are doing the heavy lifting.
Doctors know for sure that when our hair regains some color, it’s because our stem cells are getting in on the party. And while many believe we have a limited supply of melanocytes – which re-color those grays – a few scientists (like Rosenberg) are starting to think otherwise.
“The depletion of stem cells would imply that the graying is permanent, but this has only been shown in mice. Some transient stem cells may come in, which could possibly be responsible for the re-pigmentation that we are seeing here.”
Which means, of course, that more studies of this kind are needed before we can know for sure.
It could be that once we hit a certain age, there’s no going back from graying hair. It could be, though, that new stem cell therapies could grow to rival the $23 billion global hair color industry in the future.
That said, if you’re still young, we know for sure there’s definitely something you can do, and that’s de-stress.
Take those vacation days, ask for help with the kids, and try to unplug for more hours of the day.
Your vanity will thank you!