From white and light blonde to red, brown and black, a person’s hair color plays an important part in their appearance and may reflect their health or levels of stress they are experiencing. Our hair color is given by the pigment melanin – the same pigment found in our skin and pigmented tissue of the iris, which is why, for example, people with very white skin usually have blond hair and blue eyes, whereas people with dark skin and naturally blond hair are quite uncommon.
How does it work?
Melanin is produced by pigment cells called melanocytes, which are present in the hair follicle. Melanocytes produce two types of pigment:
- Eumelanin (black or brown in color)
- Pheomelanin (red or yellow)
These pigments are then passed to keratinocytes, the keratin-producing cells in the hair follicle that will retain the pigment after they die (the hair shaft is made up of dead cells – its why cutting your hair doesn’t hurt!). Melanocytes gradually become less active as we age, and therefore less pigment is produced and “stored” into the hair shaft. As a result, your hair will gradually become lighter until there are no melanocytes left to produce pigment.
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Why does hair go gray?
Apart from aging, the most important factors that influence graying are genetics (you usually go gray around the same age your parents did) and lifestyle. Nutrient deficiency affects hair health in a number of different ways, including the proper functioning of melanocytes and keratinocytes. Therefore, if your diet is low in protein and vitamin B-12, you might notice quite a lot of white hairs appearing in your 30s or 40s.
Moreover, stress or extreme shock and untreated thyroid conditions can lead to premature graying, although this doesn’t happen overnight.
Why does melanin stop going into the hair follicles?
Melanin is stored in melanosomes and moved through their dendrites in order to reach keratinocytes. However, keratinocytes retain pigment and naturally become less active as we age or leave certain conditions untreated, which is why melanin eventually stops going into the hair follicle. Moreover, when you first start graying, melanocytes are underactive – they will eventually die with age, which means there will be no more pigment within the hair shaft.
Can you slow down this process?
While there’s nothing we can do to stay young forever, it goes without saying that living and eating healthily delays aging and improves overall well-being. Since gray hair is one of the first visible signs of aging, a healthy mind in a healthy body could delay graying until your late 50s-early 60s. Bear in mind there are people in their 20s who have gray hair and are perfectly healthy, so in the end genetics is a big factor.
Is it possible to reverse graying?
If you have premature gray hair, you might be able to reverse it by adjusting your lifestyle and diet. First and foremost, it is important to minimize stress and make sure you get plenty of vitamins (mainly from fruits and veggies) to nourish the hair follicle.
Moreover, gray hair may be reversed if caused by thyroid or pituitary conditions; therefore, it is very important to see a doctor if you believe you have an undiagnosed condition, or just to perform a routine check-up for your own peace of mind.