The Grey Matter: Premature hair aging in the average 20-something

MsT delves into grey matter to determine why so many youngsters are already sporting the salt and pepper look


Scientifically speaking, the concept of ‘grey hair’ is somewhat a misnomer. There really is no such thing when you take melanin — the natural, colour pigment of the body — into consideration. For most of us in Pakistan, this pigment is black or brown in colour and it doesn’t ‘fade out’ into lighter shades.

Instead, the progressive demise of melanin increases melanocyte (cells which infuse the hair follicle with colour) production, causing the normal-pigmented hair to become interspersed with white. With a loss of melanin, new hair produced is without any pigment. So while some of us may appreciate the salt-and-pepper look sported by celebrities like George Clooney, let’s not forget that grey hair is an indicator that one part of your anatomy is calling it quits. And if you are under the age of 35, this is not a good thing.

Most people tend to blame early greys on their genetic makeup while others consider the environment to be a direct cause. According to Philip Kingsley, a world-renowned trichologist and author of The Hair Bible, “If either one of your parents went grey early, then you probably will too.”

But scientists and health experts around the world have determined another key factor which brings on the silver strands well before time — stress. Jennifer Lin, a researcher at the Harvard Cancer Centre in Boston has noted that the expression of stress hormones hinders the delivery of melanin to new hair. According to Jennifer, “If the signal is disrupted, melanin will simply not deliver pigment to your hair.” Even Philip has cited excessive stress as a cause of prematurely aging hair, and says, “Emotional stress, illness and poor diets deplete the body of Vitamin B, causing whiteness of hair.”

A research entitled ‘Oxidative Stress in the Aging of Hair’, published in the International Journal of Trichology in 2009, takes a substantial leap forward by evaluating the ‘free radical theory of greying.’ The theory argues that oxidative stress from external environmental stressors like smoking and excessive sunlight can accelerate aging and prompt premature greying. But that is just the half of it!

While stress and genetics are indeed precursors for early greys, other important stimulators include hormonal imbalances and common medical conditions like sinus. Twenty-four-year-old university student Mishaal Wahab, for example, has had a full head of white hair since puberty. “I have had white hair since I was 12,” shares Mishaal. “I remember visiting two different doctors to find out why. One associated it with my sinus while the other attributed my hair to my menstruation cycle which was disbalanced.”

All in all, there are four fundamental factors with a direct effect on your overall health: diet, sleep, stress and level of activity. Fortunately or unfortunately, all four are linked and necessary for one another. The relationship between stress and premature greying shouldn’t be ignored, considering that stress is easiest to fix.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, February 15th, 2015.


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