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Gray Hair: It’s Not Your Kids’ Fault (Probably)

Nov 07, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

By Kelsey Casselbury

Few milestones in life cause as much angst as finding that first gray hair. It’s a completely normal process of aging, and yet it always comes as a surprise.

There’s a lot of other things that are surprising about gray hair, though. While you probably realized that graying is genetic (thanks, Mom!), did you know that your immune system plays a role, too? Well, at least that’s what researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham now think—but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up a bit first to discus the basics of hair gone gray. 

50 Shades of Gray Hairs

The process of how a hair turns gray isn’t in dispute, as scientists have known for a while that it happens when melanin, the pigment that colors your hair, reduces production. If production is just lessened, the hair turns gray. If it stops entirely, the hair turns white. 

Silvery strands are more noticeable in dark-haired folks, but it does happen to mostly everyone (don’t you say that life isn’t fair!). Doctors call this the 50-50-50 rule: By age 50, around 50 percent of people will have 50 percent gray hair, salon results notwithstanding. 

The Latest News

Now that the science lesson is out of the way, the results of the research will make much more sense. Let’s dive in. 

At some point in their lives, everyone catches a virus or has an illness that alerts the immune system to do its job. Infected cells send out the warning for other cells to protect themselves by producing interferons. However, researchers found that your immune system’s battle cries during this time can create an excess of interferons, which leads to the loss of melanocytes—the cells that make up melanin, or the hair’s pigment. Bye-bye blonde, hello gray. 

This research, which is in its early stages, might explain why it seems like people go gray after a severe illness or long periods of stress. It’s not the stress itself that’s causing the hair to turn gray, but perhaps the immune system’s response to that stress. One other caveat: The study was performed on mice, so there’s always a chance it won’t translate to humans. 

Skip the Blame Game

This research isn’t the end-all, be-all of gray hair, so don’t go freaking out that the flu will cause your hair to lose its gorgeous chestnut color. A person could go their entire life without ever catching a virus or feeling an ounce of stress, and their hair will still naturally begin to lose its pigment. That’s because there are other factors, too— genetics, of course, but also your health and your lifestyle. Smoking can cause hair to gray (just in case you needed another reason to quit), as do health conditions such as thyroid disease and vitamin B12 deficiency. While you might still want to run to the salon to get those grays covered up, remember that it’s not just you —everyone will find that first gray strand at some point.