It will not come as news that as we age, we become prone to grey hair. A number of factors influence this process, including and not limited to age, ethnicity, gender, heredity, climate, and other environmental factors. Such as stress. Intuitively, chronic psychological stress has the ability to age us beyond our years, resulting in physical manifestations such as hair and skin changes (I’m looking at you, eye cream).

A new study from a team of researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as contributions from UCD researcher Desmond J. Tobin, has offered quantitative evidence of a relationship between psychological stress and greying hair. Additional findings from this research suggest a fluid nature in this change in colour, where the hair colour can be restored once the psychological stress has been relieved. This research is absolutely novel as it contradicts the long-standing idea that hair colour loss is permanent while providing a more robust analysis of the correlation between hair colour loss and periods of stress during a set period of time. 

The study published earlier this summer in June also serves to inform the field of research regarding human ageing, and the understanding that human development and the qualities we associate with ageing are not linear or singularly directional. Hair is an interesting tool to use in the collection of this information, as it holds a small bit of history of periods in our lives, whether it be of intense psychological stress or exposure to different materials.

The first author on the paper that detailed this research, Ayelet Rosenberg, successfully designed a new method for taking and documenting images of segments of human hairs whereby the extent of pigmentation loss in hairs from people of different ethnic backgrounds could be quantified. These microscopically small slices could be visualised to the point of recognizing changes in colour not perceived by the human eye. Hour by hour, month by month, the subtle changes held tidbits of information about the life of the person whom the hair came from.

In an effort to provide context to the patterns of greying, and reversing hair in particular participants, they were asked to complete a retrospective stress documentation based on a life event calendar. In this way, there was a more subjective assessment of stress during a short period of time to determine whether there is a distinct comparison between stress levels and stress events. Based on this study, investigators were able to note that there were some grey hairs that gained their natural colour back based on periods in people’s lives that were relatively stress-free, for example during a week of vacation.

This study and the resultant research falls into the growing body of research surrounding human ageing and whether it is truly linear in nature or whether we are afforded flexibility based on what we determine our environment to be, especially in our pre-middle aged years. Premature greying is not abnormal, and of course, is dependent on a number of factors, but can be reversed in some apparent cases through the practice of stress management.

Vanessa Gomes – Science Correspondent