Aesthetic Dermatology Update

Graying of hair: Could it be reversed?


The correlation between stress and graying of hair has long been hypothesized, but has been difficult to prove. In addition, reversal of hair graying has been thought of as a temporary phenomenon as hair pigment goes through its natural progression of senescence.

Asian man looking at his gray hair in mirror Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

However, the recent publication that is a collaboration between the department of psychiatry at Columbia University, New York; and the departments of dermatology at the University College Dublin, University of Miami, and the University of Manchester (England); and the Monasterium Laboratory in Münster, Germany, demonstrates a quantitative mapping of human hair graying – and its reversal – in relation to stress.

In the study, hair color of single strands of hair from seven healthy females and seven healthy males, whose mean age was 35 years (range, 9-65 years), were analyzed. In addition to hair pigment analysis, study subjects documented the stress they were experiencing each week in diaries. Using either high resolution image scanners, electron microscopy, and/or hair shaft proteomics, the investigators were able to evaluate loss of pigment within fragments small enough to have grown over one hour.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley, a dermatologist who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley

When changes in hair color were noted, variations in up to 300 proteins were documented, including an up-regulation of the fatty acid synthesis and metabolism machinery in graying. Recent studies also corroborate that fatty acid synthesis by fatty acid synthase and “transport by CPT1A ... are sufficient drivers of cell senescence, and that fatty acid metabolism regulates melanocyte aging biology” the authors wrote.

Molecularly, the investigators found that gray hairs up-regulate proteins associated with energy metabolism, mitochondria, and antioxidant defenses. The graying correlated with stress was also reversible, “at least temporarily,” based on their retrospective analysis and analysis over the 2.5-year recruitment period, the investigators wrote. Specifically, they found that graying hair “may be acutely triggered by stressful life experiences, the removal of which can trigger reversal.” From the data, they also developed a mathematical model to predict what might happen to human hair over time.

Dr. Lily Talakoub, McLean (Va.) Dermatology and Skin Care Center

Dr. Lily Talakoub

Through this study, proof-of-concept evidence is provided indicating that biobehavioral factors are linked to human hair graying dynamics. Future analysis with larger sample sizes and incorporating neuroendocrine markers may further support these correlations. This is an interesting study that elucidates the mechanisms responsible for how stress and other life exposures manifest in human biology, and, if we as human beings effectively manage that stress, how it may both reverse the negative impact and outcomes affecting our body and health.

The study was supported by the Wharton Fund and grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Wesley and Dr. Lily Talakoub are cocontributors to this column. Dr. Wesley practices dermatology in Beverly Hills, Calif. Dr. Talakoub is in private practice in McLean, Va. This month’s column is by Dr. Wesley. Write to them at [email protected]. They have no relevant disclosures.

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