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Stress Really Does Make You Go Gray Faster, Study Confirms

As time marches on, it takes away our fantastic metabolism, our tight, radiant skin, our flexibility and mobility, and it's one of nature's biggest jerk moves.

But before you go stressing too much about ageing, bear in mind that stressing will only make it worse.

For those of us who have always suspected that stressful lives make our hair go gray faster, well, you're not wrong.

And scientists at Harvard have confirmed it: if you're stressed out, you're probably going gray faster than everybody else.

There are plenty of historical examples — Marie Antoinette's hair was said to have turned stark white just before her beheading, and her name has become synonymous with speedy graying. More recently, we have former President Obama's famously graying hair during his two terms in the Oval Office.

According to the researchers, it's all about the body's fight-or-flight response.

The study, published in the journal Nature, examined the biological link between stress and gray hair, and found that the hormone that the body produces during fight-or-flight episodes profoundly affects the stem cells that give hair its color.

Basically, those cells, called melanocytes, have only a finite amount of pigment to color your hair with.

The stress hormone released during stressful periods signals the melanocytes to speed up, using up more of their pigment supply.

You are, in effect, ageing faster, and the melanocytes quickly run out of pigment. Once it's gone, it's gone, and the follicle they're responsible for turns gray for good.

Experts say that this research could have implications well beyond your coif, however.

For one, it opens the door to how stress and ageing work throughout the entire body.

"This is certainly one implication that I'm particularly excited about," University of Virginia biologist Christopher Deppmann told The Guardian. "There has already been evidence that stress and the fight-or-flight response depresses stem cells that are important for immunity. This may be the reason we often get sick after prolonged periods of stress.

"I believe that we have only scratched the surface of whether and how stress and fight-or-flight mechanisms deplete other stem cell populations. Whether or not this is the cause of premature ageing remains to be determined, but I wouldn't bet against it."

And it looks like this research is simply a leaping-off point for more work on how stress affects ageing.

"Stress is an inevitable part of modern life, but we understand very little about how it affects stem cell biology and tissue turnover," the study's author, Harvard professor Ya-Chieh Hsu, said. "Hair color is an excellent starting point because hair is so visible and easily accessible. But different stem cells and different organs may respond to the signals of the sympathetic nervous system very differently, and we don’t know exactly how yet."

h/t: Nature, Time, The Guardian