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Grey Hair Anxiety Symptoms

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: June 16, 2020


Grey hair or greying hair can be a symptom of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and others.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your anxiety symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test or Anxiety Disorder Test. The higher the rating, the more likely it could be contributing to your anxiety symptoms, including greying hair.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and grey or greying hair.

The Symptom:

  • You notice your hair is turning grey.
  • You notice your hair is turning grey prematurely, in your opinion.
  • Patches of your hair are turning grey.
  • You notice all of your hair is turning grey.

This symptom generally comes on gradually over months, but it can also come on suddenly (much less time) for some people.

The Reason:

Medical Advisory

Anxiety-caused stress

Anxious behavior activates the body’s stress response, which secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat – to either fight or flee.

This survival reaction is the reason why the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”).[1][2]

Because of the many body-wide changes, stress responses stress the body.

Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. They are called anxiety symptoms because anxious behavior is the main source of the stress that causes the body to become stressed and symptomatic.

Stress has been known to cause grey hair. Consequently, anxiety-caused stress can also cause hair to turn grey.

While the mechanism behind stress causing grey hair hasn’t been well understood, recent research claims to have solved the puzzle.

You can read the press release for this research below:



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Solving a biological puzzle: How stress causes gray hair

When Marie Antoinette was captured during the French Revolution, her hair reportedly turned white overnight. In more recent history, John McCain experienced severe injuries as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War -- and lost color in his hair.

For a long time, anecdotes have connected stressful experiences with the phenomenon of hair graying. Now, for the first time, Harvard University scientists have discovered exactly how the process plays out: stress activates nerves that are part of the fight-or-flight response, which in turn cause permanent damage to pigment-regenerating stem cells in hair follicles.

The study, published in Nature, advances scientists' knowledge of how stress can impact the body.[3]

"Everyone has an anecdote to share about how stress affects their body, particularly in their skin and hair -- the only tissues we can see from the outside," said senior author Ya-Chieh Hsu, the Alvin and Esta Star Associate Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard. "We wanted to understand if this connection is true, and if so, how stress leads to changes in diverse tissues. Hair pigmentation is such an accessible and tractable system to start with -- and besides, we were genuinely curious to see if stress indeed leads to hair graying. "

Narrowing down the culprit

Because stress affects the whole body, researchers first had to narrow down which body system was responsible for connecting stress to hair color. The team first hypothesized that stress causes an immune attack on pigment-producing cells. However, when mice lacking immune cells still showed hair graying, researchers turned to the hormone cortisol. But once more, it was a dead end.

"Stress always elevates levels of the hormone cortisol in the body, so we thought that cortisol might play a role," Hsu said. "But surprisingly, when we removed the adrenal gland from the mice so that they couldn't produce cortisol-like hormones, their hair still turned gray under stress."

After systematically eliminating different possibilities, researchers honed in on the sympathetic nerve system, which is responsible for the body's fight-or-flight response.

Sympathetic nerves branch out into each hair follicle on the skin. The researchers found that stress causes these nerves to release the chemical norepinephrine, which gets taken up by nearby pigment-regenerating stem cells.

Permanent damage

In the hair follicle, certain stem cells act as a reservoir of pigment-producing cells. When hair regenerates, some of the stem cells convert into pigment-producing cells that color the hair.

Researchers found that the norepinephrine from sympathetic nerves causes the stem cells to activate excessively. The stem cells all convert into pigment-producing cells, prematurely depleting the reservoir.

"When we started to study this, I expected that stress was bad for the body -- but the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined," Hsu said. "After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost. Once they're gone, you can't regenerate pigment anymore. The damage is permanent."

The finding underscores the negative side effects of an otherwise protective evolutionary response, the researchers said.

"Acute stress, particularly the fight-or-flight response, has been traditionally viewed to be beneficial for an animal's survival. But in this case, acute stress causes permanent depletion of stem cells," said postdoctoral fellow Bing Zhang, the lead author of the study.

Answering a fundamental question

To connect stress with hair graying, the researchers started with a whole-body response and progressively zoomed into individual organ systems, cell-to-cell interaction and, eventually, all the way down to molecular dynamics. The process required a variety of research tools along the way, including methods to manipulate organs, nerves, and cell receptors.

"To go from the highest level to the smallest detail, we collaborated with many scientists across a wide range of disciplines, using a combination of different approaches to solve a very fundamental biological question," Zhang said.

The collaborators included Isaac Chiu, assistant professor of immunology at Harvard Medical School who studies the interplay between nervous and immune systems.

"We know that peripheral neurons powerfully regulate organ function, blood vessels, and immunity, but less is known about how they regulate stem cells," Chiu said.

"With this study, we now know that neurons can control stem cells and their function, and can explain how they interact at the cellular and molecular level to link stress with hair graying."

The findings can help illuminate the broader effects of stress on various organs and tissues. This understanding will pave the way for new studies that seek to modify or block the damaging effects of stress.

"By understanding precisely how stress affects stem cells that regenerate pigment, we've laid the groundwork for understanding how stress affects other tissues and organs in the body," Hsu said. "Understanding how our tissues change under stress is the first critical step towards eventual treatment that can halt or revert the detrimental impact of stress. We still have a lot to learn in this area."

The study was supported by the Smith Family Foundation Odyssey Award, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Harvard/MIT Basic Neuroscience Grants Program, Harvard FAS and HMS Dean's Award, American Cancer Society, NIH, the Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, and an HSCI junior faculty grant.



The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


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REFERENCES:

1. Folk, Jim. “The Stress Response.” Anxiety Attacks, Anxietycentre.com, 2020.

2. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

3. Bing Zhang, Sai Ma, Inbal Rachmin, Megan He, Pankaj Baral, Sekyu Choi, William A. Gonçalves, Yulia Shwartz, Eva M. Fast, Yiqun Su, Leonard I. Zon, Aviv Regev, Jason D. Buenrostro, Thiago M. Cunha, Isaac M. Chiu, David E. Fisher, Ya-Chieh Hsu. Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells. Nature, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-1935-3