Do you ever look in the mirror, first thing in the morning, and discover a pesky gray hair you never noticed before? You may ask yourself: Where are these coming from? Am I really getting that old? And, most importantly: What makes hair turn gray in the first place?
For years, science was unable to answer that question. It seems pretty simple: Eventually almost everyone’s hair turns gray, and the industry behind hair dyes and anti-graying shampoo makes billions of dollars per year; so why couldn’t anyone crack the code and figure out why our hair changes color and if anything can be done to stop it?
Well, the wait may be over because scientists believe they have figured out what turns our hair gray
What Turns Hair Gray?
In a new article published in the highly respected journal “Nature,” scientists from Harvard University shared their findings from a study investigating hair turning gray in a mouse model. The scientists began with a hypothesis: stress is responsible for turning our hair gray. To test their theory, they subjected mice to three different types of stress: physical restraint, physical pain, and psychological stress (I know, poor mice — right?). In each situation, the hair — or fur in this instance — changed from a normal tone to a gray or white color. Initially the scientists believed the adrenal glands — long associated with stress and the release of stress hormones — were the culprit. However, they used mice without adrenal glands in the same experiment and the results were the same: the hair turned gray. So, if it wasn’t the adrenal glands, what was causing the stress?
After pondering the situation and running a few more simulations, the researchers discovered that it was the body’s sympathetic or “fight or flight” nervous system, not the hormones released by the adrenal glands, causing the stress that set off the hair color change. After confirming it was the sympathetic nervous system, the scientists looked deeper at how this part of the body’s nervous system actually caused the change. What they found was that when stressed, the sympathetic nervous system caused the stem cells in a certain part of the hair follicle to work overtime. After working under these conditions for a period of time, the portion of the cells responsible for producing hair pigmentation began to basically “burn out” and cease normal function.
The researchers believe this response may actually hold some evolutionary value. Animals with gray hair or fur have clearly lived through some stressful events and have the experience and knowledge to lead others through these same events or at least impart some wisdom upon those who are younger and have not yet encountered — let alone survived — these stressful situations.
While these findings are fascinating, unfortunately the researchers did not offer any sort of new solution for the problem. And while reducing stress seems like a logical approach, the sympathetic nervous system is “autonomic” and works somewhat independently. We don’t have a lot of control over what it does.
So, now we may know what causes hair to turn gray. We also know that it is somewhat unavoidable and can be treated with dyes and anti-graying topical treatments. This is great for people with gray hair who keep their hair. But what about people with gray hair AND hair loss? Can people with gray hair undergo hair transplant surgery?
Hair Transplant with Gray Hair?
While science may not have discovered a way to reverse gray hair, we have figured out a way to reverse hair loss in those with gray hair: hair transplant surgery. Patients with gray hair are excellent candidates for hair transplant surgery. Gray hair tends to have a bit more texture, thickness, and wave compared to non-gray hair. It also blends in very well with almost all skin types. This means patients with gray hair typically undergo impressive transformations with hair transplant surgery. Furthermore, gray transplanted hair can be dyed just like native hair. So patients with gray hair who undergo hair transplants can always dye it back to their natural color — if they so choose. Hair transplanted before it turns gray will also “go gray” at the same rate as the rest of the native hair, so patients who have transplants before the color changes will look uniform and natural.
Here are some examples of patients with gray hair who had hair transplant surgery at Feller & Bloxham Medical:
Congratulations to the researchers at Harvard for “cracking the code” and figuring out what turns our hair gray. For those with gray hair looking to transplant some of it to bald and thinning regions, please feel free to reach out and see if there is something we can do to help.