A January 2020 study, published in Nature, found that stress does actually cause hair to gray. While scientists have known this for hundreds of years, the physiological mechanisms weren’t discovered until now. When experiencing stress, the nervous system switches on its fight-or-flight response – a “hyperactivation of the sympathetic nerves” – which depletes the cells responsible for pigmentation (melanocyte stem cells) in hair follicles.
To induce a stress response, scientists injected capsaicin (an active ingredient in chili peppers) into mice and found that in 5 days their hair turned white. After digging deep into what caused the change, scientists discovered that the nervous system was responsible. The fight-or-flight response triggers the release of the neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, which jump starts the process of melanocyte stem cell depletion.
Takeaway: The COVID-19 pandemic is a stressful time for us all, from the challenges that come with social distancing to the fears associated with the virus itself. While our hair turning gray is the least of our worries, our mental health is paramount. It not only affects our gut health, but it also impacts our immunity, and every other system in our bodies. If you’re struggling to stay sane, try outlets such as exercise, meditation, and plenty of sleep. If things don’t seem to improve, don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend, family member, or professional for support. We’re in this together!