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Why Does Hair Turn Gray? Is Graying Hair Natural or a Sign of Premature Aging?
Getting that first gray hair can be a sobering experience, whether it happens as early as high school or in the fifty-somethings. Graying hair can look distinguished and can be a symbol of wisdom. However, in a society desperate to look younger, most people pass on the distinguished look and grab a box of hair dye. Scientists say that graying hair is a natural process of aging but why exactly does hair turn gray?
The Hair Growth Process
Hair turns gray at the follicle. Just below the follicle are all the ingredients to build hair. Epidermal cells, called keratinocytes, build the strands of hair that grow out of each follicle. The keratinocytes eventually die leaving behind keratin. Keratin is a strong, colorless protein that is in finger and toenails, animal hooves and even the outer layer of skin. Melanocytes are cells that exist next to the keratinocytes and they provide the hair’s pigment or melanin. Melanin is carried by melanosomes to the follicle and gives the hair its color. Obviously, something goes wrong in this process that causes hair to turn gray.
Cell Death Means Gray Hair
According to researchers melanocytes have much shorter life spans than keratinocytes. In the life cycle of a hair follicle, the hairs grow for several years, rest and then the hair falls out signaling the death of keratinocytes and melanocytes. Both cell types are created by stem cells when a dormant follicle begins to grow hair again. However, over time, the melanocytes become depleted and hair begins to turn gray.
Scientists are not certain why melanocytes die off when they do. Some believe that it is purely genetic and that some internal clock determines when the cells will die. Others believe that stress, either in the form of emotional stress or physical, may cause melanocyte death. The physical causes of stress that may impact cell death are many, including exposure to toxins in the environment, viruses and autoimmune diseases, malnutrition and conditions that affect metabolism.
It is suspected that these physical stressors allow a higher number of free radicals to roam the body, causing damage to cells. This is a pattern for all cells in the aging process. As the body accumulates toxins and the resulting damage from those toxins, system functions become degraded resulting in poorer circulation and cell communication.
What Can be Done to Prevent Hair From Turning Gray?
Although research has not proven that anything can stop hair from turning gray, supplementation may help to slow the process. If you know or suspect that you have a metabolic condition, like hypothyroidism, following a treatment regime may help slow graying hair. Taking antioxidants can help reduce the number of damaging free radicals attacking the melanocytes. Vitamin B deficiencies, especially Vitamin B-12, can be useful supplements and can also improve energy and stress levels. An herbal formula used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, called Fo-Ti, may help with hair color but is used only in very specific imbalances.
It is unlikely that any major breakthroughs in hair color restoration will be announced any time soon. In the meantime, it would seem that the same advice for most conditions regarding aging hold true for graying hair: try to maintain a healthy and stress-free lifestyle. Taking care of yourself goes a long way in creating a happy, healthy and long life.