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Going Grey: Why & What To Do About It

Age related illnesses, Men's Health, Women's Health | January 11, 2018 | Author: Naturopath

age related, men, women's health

Going Grey: Why & What To Do About It

Silver foxes and grey nomads – the stigma of going grey isn't what it used to be, but some of us aren't ready to let go of our pigmented locks just yet. Good news – some simple diet and lifestyle changes can help to prevent the onset and progression of greying (some of the time...).

First, let's bust a common myth:

Stressed Out About Going Grey?

It's a myth that stress causes hair to turn grey, but it can cause it to fall out.Telogan effluvian is a condition of temporary hair loss that can by triggered by periods of acute or chronic stress. 
Stressed Out About Going Grey?Hair loss from this condition usually occurs at the top of the scalp rather than the sides or front.

New hair grows back within months but it may be depigmented and grey like all new hairs growing at that time. 

As it grows in, the mass of new depigmented hair can give the appearance that stress caused the hair to “turn” grey.

The Nitty Gritty of Going Grey

Melanin is an umbrella term for pigments that give colour to hair, skin and eyes. The gene involved in greying hair, IRF4, boosts melanin production within hair follicles. When a hair shaft grows, it is initially white. As it develops in the hair follicle, melanin cells (melanocytes) inject pigment into the white shaft of the hair, giving it either a “dark” or “light” colour [2]. As the number of melanocytes decrease with age, so does the pigmentation of the hair, resulting in grey strands. But other factors may cause greying before our melanocytes have had their time:

Hydrogen Peroxide – Nature's Bleach

Hair cells naturally produce hydrogen peroxide. It's an effective antimicrobial agent, but it's also a potent free radical that can cause all sorts of damage. After hydrogen peroxide has killed off any bad bugs hanging around, it needs to be further metabolised by hair cells or a build-up can lead to bleaching of the hair follicle – just like the hydrogen peroxide found in a bottle of blonde hair dye. The normal breakdown of hydrogen peroxide produces harmless molecules of hydrogen and oxygen but this process is down-regulated with advancing age, and a build-up of hydrogen peroxide can occur. Deep in the follicle, hydrogen peroxide inhibits the effects of melanin on the hair, resulting in hair whitening [3].

In theory, anything that causes a build-up of hydrogen peroxide in the body may contribute to greying of the hair:

  • Elevated homocysteine may accelerate greying hair because it directly produces hydrogen peroxide.
    Click Here to learn more about homocysteine 
  • Xanthine oxidase can produce hydrogen peroxide. It plays a role in gout, too!
    Click Here For Article
    Click Here For Article
  • Infection of the scalp may cause immune cells to release hydrogen peroxide to destroy the pathogens.

Methionine Sulfoxide Reductases (MSRs) are enzymes that help to repair damage caused by hydrogen peroxide. They also assist in the creation of melanin – obviously they're great allies against the greys. Unfortunately MSR enzymes decline as we age.

With a combination of failing melanocytes, high hydrogen peroxide and low MSRs, the hair shaft becomes bleached and depigmented – time to embrace the silver fox within?

Unlocking The Grey Genetic Code

Unlocking The Grey Genetic CodeHere's the rub – while we know that hydrogen peroxide and failing melanocytes are some mechanisms behind depigmented hair shafts, it's true that going grey is mostly a predetermined genetic process.

In 2016, researchers identified a primarily gene involved in the greying of hair – IRF4 [1]. This gene is responsible for melanin production and regulation, and may switch “off” at an age similar to that of your parents.

Researchers emphasise that genetics aren't the only piece of the puzzle though – we said it was a mostly predetermined process. Science suggests that there are lifestyle changes you can make to keep your greys at bay.

Breaking Down Hydrogen Peroxide

It's not all bad news. Hydrogen peroxide is readily broken down into hydrogen and oxygen atoms by many processes within the body. Natural therapies may help to boost the two major enzymes that can break it down and protect the hair shaft pigmentation:

Catalase : The primary antioxidant enzyme responsible for the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide throughout the body [4]. Low catalase is caused by inflammation, so keep your inflammation low to improve catalase action, break down hydrogen peroxide, and prevent greying.
Click Here For Article

Glutathione peroxidase : A potent antioxidant enzyme that is able to break hydrogen peroxide into its component parts. Glutathione relies on other antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and alpha-lipoic acid for its regeneration.

Natural Therapies to Encourage Hair Pigmentation


Both cardiovascular and resistance training increases catalase and glutathione peroxide levels in the body [12]. Plus, anything that increases heart rate and supports cardiovascular health will improve circulation to the scalp, delivering nutrients for the formation and function of melanocytes. Inverted yoga poses and other exercises where your head is lower than your heart can really boost the blood flow to the hair follicles.

Eat Your Greens & Grains

Green vegetables and grains are rich in phenolic acids and phytates, chemicals which can inhibit the activity of xanthine oxidase.

They also contain an abundance of essential vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory antioxidants to support catalase and glutathione peroxidase activity.

Research has shown that having irregular meals with low vegetable content may be linked to premature greying [11], so keep your diet in check!

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient for cell division and synthesis of DNA. Without adequate vitamin B12, melanocytes and the hair shaft itself can become unstable, resulting in greying hair [6]. Keep your levels high with animal-derived proteins, and fermented foods like tempeh and miso. Vegans and vegetarians may need to take a high quality supplement and have levels checked regularly.

Vitamin D

Like vitamin B12, vitamin D is involved in DNA synthesis and cell division, and is important for melanin pigmentation [7]. It's also essential for and has been linked to premature greying in children [6]. Caution – while the sun won't bleach the hair directly, excessive exposure to any UV radiation can reduce catalase levels. Just 15 minutes of sun exposure to the legs, arms and face is enough to maintain healthy vitamin D levels – any more than that is risky business for hair and skin health*.

If you're not able to get adequate sun exposure or suffer from a vitamin D deficiency, you may benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement.

* In fact, some dermatologists would argue even 15 minutes is too much sun. Speak to your doctor or dermatologist for personal advice.
Click Here For Article on Vitamin D
Click Here For Article on Melanoma

Quit the Cigarettes & Alcohol

Smokers are 4 times more likely to suffer from premature greying [8], and alcohol consumption dramatically uses up available catalase enzymes for its metabolism [10]. Tobacco use causes complications to the circulatory system, resulting in less blood flow to the scalp – without adequate nutrition delivered to the hair follicle, melanocytes struggle to produce pigmented hair shafts.
Click Here For Article on quitting

Too Early To Go Grey?

Premature greying may be caused by serious conditions such as:

  • Thyroid diseases
  • Phenylalanine or tyrosine deficiency (both are rare!)
  • Anaemia caused by low iron or vitamin B12 [6] [11] (both are common!)
    Click Here For Article
  • Heart disease – why the two are connected is still unknown, but a recent studies showed that grey hair has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease in men [5], particularly in young smokers [9].

Speak to your doctor for personalised advice if you are suffering from premature greying.

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[1] Adhikari, K., et al. (2016) A genome-wide association scan in admixed Latin Americans identifies loci influencing facial and scalp hair features. Nature Communications, 7. https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms10815

[2] Slominski, A., et al. (2005) Hair Follicle Pigmentation. J Invest Dermatol., 124:1, 13 – 21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201498/

[3] Trüeb, R. M. (2009) Oxidative Stress in Ageing of Hair. Int J Technology., 1:1, 6 – 14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2929555/

[4] Sies, H. (2017) Hydrogen peroxide as a central redox signaling molecule in physiological oxidative stress: Oxidative eustress. Redox Biol., 11, 613 - 619.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5256672/

[5] Samuels, I. (2017) Grey hair linked with increased heart disease risk in men. Escardio: https://www.escardio.org/Sub-specialty-communities/European-Association-of-Preventive-Cardiology-(EAPC)/News/grey-hair-linked-with-increased-heart-disease-risk-in-men

[6] Bhat, R. M., et al. (2013) Epidemiological and Investigative Study of Premature Graying of Hair in Higher Secondary and Pre-University School Children. Int J Trichology, 5:1, 17 – 21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3746220/

[7] Slominski, A., et al. (2005) Hair Follicle Pigmentation. J Invest Dermatol., 124:1, 13 – 21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201498/

[8] Zayed, A., et al. (2013) Smokers’ hair: Does smoking cause premature hair graying? Indian Dermatol Online J., 4:2, 90 – 92. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673399/

[9] Aggarwal., A. (2015) Premature Graying of Hair: An Independent Risk Marker for Coronary Artery Disease in Smokers - A Retrospective Case Control Study. Ethiop J Health Sci., 25:2, 123 – 128. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4478263/

[10] Cederbaum, A. I. (2013) Alcohol metabolism. Clin Liv Dis., 16:4, 667 – 685. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3484320/

[11] Chakrabarty, S., et al. (2016) Factors Associated with Premature Hair Graying in a Young Indian Population. Int J Trichology., 8:1, 11 – 14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4830165/

[12] Yavari, A., et al. (2015) Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress and Dietary Antioxidants. Asian J Sports Med., 6:1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4393546/

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