Legend has it that as Marie Antoinette awaited her fatal appointment with the guillotine, her hair turned white overnight. For most of us the stress of life has a slower effect, the first grey hairs appearing around the temple, and then spreading.
It might help to first understand why we get grey hair. Hair colour is produced by tiny pigment cells within our hair follicles called melanocytes. As we age the activity of these melanocytes declines until they stop making pigment. New hairs grow in without pigment, resulting in grey hair. The melanocytes stop working because of the accumulation of hydrogen peroxide in the hair follicle due to “massive epidermal oxidative stress”, causing hairs to bleach themselves from the inside out.
There are some drugs – dangerous, expensive anti-cancer drugs – that have been shown to reverse the greying process, but as yet science hasn’t found a safe way to bring back our youthful locks. Genetics probably plays a role. Some sources claim each of us has a genetically determined time when we are doomed to go grey, but there is no proof of this. Lifestyle can also affect the speed of greying – smoking, lack of exercise, all the usual stuff – so genetics isn’t everything. The idea that extreme stress can turn your hair grey or white overnight has been around for a long time and we can often think of people who lost their hair colour after a particularly stressful period. There is no actual scientific proof of this, although as stress causes other visible signs of aging there is no reason why this would not be the case, especially as stress hormones can affect the functioning of melanocytes. We all know cases around us, but politicians are a case in point. David Cameron, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama all turned grey at record rates within months of taking office.
Greying hair invokes a “socio-emotional” response, since it signals to us youth is on its way out. If we say to someone we’re hoping our hair will regain its colour, the chances it will be taken as a joke or a delusion. But there are cases when it has happened. Positive sensory input has been found to reverse greying. Going brown can also be the result of dietary changes or hormonal shifts. So there is much yet to be discovered about how and why we turn grey.
But perhaps there is something else there: belief. The internet is full of stories – with photos – of people whose hair has turned brown again. There are those who have found individual grey hairs with brown roots – a very common phenomenon no one ever talks openly about – and there are also cases of elderly people suddenly finding patches of dark hair. Their melanocytes have, for some reason, reactivated. Doctors will say this is impossible, but those of us who have experienced this and kept the browning hairs as proof know otherwise. For some reason melanocytes seem especially sensitive to sensory input from the mind. This is why grey hair is one of the first signs a person is under stress. The mind is the most powerful source of influence over the body. Many symptoms of aging are reversible – lost muscle mass, diabetes, high blood pressure. Why not melanocyte activity?
Let us send youthful energy to our melanocytes gently massaging our scalps instructing them to reactivate. But above all, believe it is possible, because it is.