As we age, our hair is bound to become grey. Typically, Caucasians start going grey in their mid-30s to late 30s, Asians in their early 40, and people of African descent in their mid-40s. Development of grey hair before this is considered premature.
What gives hair its colour?
Tiny follicles (sacs) that contain special pigment cells surround hair. The pigment in these cells is known as melanin. Melanin gives skin its complexion and hair its colour. Over time, hair follicles have been known to lose this pigment resulting in grey/white hair.
What causes premature greying?
Premature greying tends to run in families. If your parents or grandparents developed grey hair early, then you have a higher likelihood of going through the same experience. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about genetically predetermined factors.
Lack of sufficient vitamin B12 in the body can result in skin and hair changes. Vitamin B12 can also cause severe anaemia (the blood cells do not have enough haemoglobin, which the component of blood responsible for carrying oxygen around the body). Usually, vitamin B12 is found in meat, eggs and other animal products.
If the thyroid gland is not functioning appropriately, your body’s melanin production may reduce resulting in premature greying of your hair. The thyroid is a small gland found in the front of the neck and it has been known to over or underact even if it is not enlarged.
An autoimmune disease is a condition whereby the body’s immune system attacks its own cells. Two conditions in this category, namely alopecia areata and vitiligo, can cause premature greying of the hair. In vitiligo, the immune system attacks the melanin producing cells in the body. This leads to development of white patches of skin and premature greying of hair. In alopecia areata, there is unpredictable hair loss and when the hair grows back, you may find that you have developed new grey patches.
Smoking has a long list of side effects including cancer, cardiovascular and lung disease. Smoking may be associated with premature greying of hair.
Chemical hair dyes and hair products
Hair products containing hydrogen peroxide have been known to be harmful to hair in the long run and can lead to the development of patches of grey.
Neurofibromatosis (also called Von Recklinghausen’s disease) and tuberous sclerosis are two uncommon inherited disorders, which cause one to develop multiple non-cancerous tumours all over the body. There can be associated greying of hair.
Causes under investigation
There is some research linking premature greying to thin bones (osteopenia) and heart disease but further investigation into this is needed.
Does stress cause premature greying?
Most people notice that there is development of grey hairs in people in high-pressure jobs such as presidents, CEO, chief financial officer (even parenthood!). This causes us to wonder, ‘Does stress cause early greying of hair?’ Stress has been known to be associated with eating disorders, sleep problems and even weight changes.
However, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that stress causes premature grey hair. It has, however, been known to cause hair loss. Experiments involving mice show that there may be reduction in hair pigment cells due to stress but the same has not been comprehensively documented in humans.
Can premature greying of hair be prevented?
If the premature greying is genetic, the answer is no. You will have to learn to live with the hair changes or dye your hair if you wish to change your hair colour.
It is important to understand that even ‘permanent dyes’ need to be reapplied from time to time as the dye does not enter the pigment cells.
If the hair was grey and you dye it black, when it grows back, it will still be grey. Get your health problems sorted out: If you are unsure whether your health issues are contributing to your premature greying, then go for a full physical check-up and have yourself assessed.
If any underlying condition for your grey hair is identified, it will have to be addressed. Eat a well-balanced diet rich in vitamin B12: As earlier mentioned animal products are very rich in vitamin B12. Dark green vegetables and legumes are also a good source.
If your vitamin B12 deficiency is severe, you will need to take supplement tablets. Stop smoking: This will have improvement in your well-being.
Select your hair products wisely: Avoid use of chemicals that are harsh on the scalp and those that leave toxins in your skin. They can have long lasting effects on your hair.
If you already have grey hair, it is difficult to reverse the effect. However, if you treat the underlying cause, you can sometimes prevent the development of more grey hairs.