In 2012, researchers published the results of a worldwide survey on gray hair. In particular, they wanted to examine the 50/50/50 rule of thumb, which says that starting at age 50, about 50 percent of the population will have at least 50 percent gray hair.
They examined the hair of over 4,000 healthy men and women, and found that between the ages of 45 and 65, about three-quarters of them were affected with gray hair, with a mean intensity of about 27 percent. Overall, men had more gray hair than women did. Interestingly, the age of onset and the rate of graying with age were clearly linked with ethnic/geographical origin.
In other words, people of Asian and African descent had less gray hair than those of Caucasian origin at comparable ages.
The researchers concluded that the “rule of thumb” wasn’t quite correct, and fit only about 6 to 23 percent of people around the world. In fact, one in ten people over the age of 60 had no gray hair at all!
Still, the findings confirmed what most of us know—between the ages of 45 and 50, the majority of folks will see some of those grays. Between the age of 51 and 55, researchers found that 78 percent of people had some gray hair, typically taking up about a quarter of their total hair volume. The rates went up with age, so that between the ages of 61 and 65, nearly all people had gray hair, covering about 40 percent of their total hair volume.
Today’s coloring options make it easy enough to disguise gray hair. But regular trips to the salon can get expensive, and most coloring treatments damage hair. Are there any natural treatments that would more gently help cover those grays? What about something to stop the grays from showing up in the first place?
Why Does Hair Turn Gray?
We accept it as a natural aspect of aging, but what really causes hair to lose its color?
It starts in the hair follicles, those pore-like openings in the scalp from which the hair strands emerge. Within these follicles are cells called “melanocytes.” These cells are so named because they contain the pigment “melanin” that actually produces your natural hair color.
Are you brunette? Black? Brown? Blond? Your actual shade depends on the ratio between two groups of melanins: the brown and black ones (called “eumelanins”) and the red and yellow ones (called “pheomelanins”). Variations in the amounts of these melanins determine your natural color and tone.
Hair growth typically occurs in cycles. In the first phase, the hair grows continuously. In the second phase, the growth stops and remains off for about three months, a so-called “resting period.” During this time, the production of pigment or color turns off, too. Then in phase three, growth starts again, at which time the cells start producing pigment again…unless they don’t.
If they don’t, the hair grows, but it receives no pigment from the melanocytes, which results in gray hair. So the question is, why do the melanocytes stop working?
Two Forces Rob Hair Of Its Color
One thing seems to be clear—gray hair is tied to our genes. Scientists have researched identical twins and found that they tend to develop gray hair at about the same age. In one instance, they studied 135 pairs of adult twins over the age of 50, and found that hair graying and hair loss occurred at similar times and rates in identical twins.
We also know that two other things are involved in stopping the hair follicle from producing color:
- At the end of each hair-growing cycle, some of the melanocytes become damaged or die.
- There is a melanocyte stem cell reservoir in the hair follicle that can replenish these melanocytes, but when this reservoir goes empty, color goes away.
There are other processes that may be at work, too, including the following:
- decreased production of certain important enzymes
- free radical damage resulting in oxidative stress in the hair follicles
- heightened production of hydrogen peroxide in the hair follicles (our hair cells naturally create hydrogen peroxide, and when the amount increases as it often does with age, it can obliterate the natural pigment)
These are areas that scientists are working on to see if they may be able to help us turn back the clock. So far, they’ve found potential solutions that would delay the onset of gray hair, but they haven’t found anything that could actually reverse it.
What You’re Doing to Make Gray Hair Worse
Though genes have a strong hold on when you’ll start to go gray, there are other things that can rob your hair of its color, too. Some medical conditions, for example, are linked with premature graying, including thyroid disorders, anemia, vitiligo, osteopenia (bone loss), and obesity.
We can see that most of this is out of our control, but there are some things you may be doing that can accelerate the graying process. Here are a few that scientists have linked with premature graying:
- Eating a poor diet: Poor nutrition has been found to affect the production of melanin. Some of the specific nutrients tied to grays include protein, vitamin B12, copper, and the amino acid phenylalanine. Studies have found that individuals low in these nutrients are at a higher risk of gray hair. One study also found a link between low levels of vitamin D and premature graying.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoking is linked with premature graying. In one study, for example, researchers found a significant relation between the onset of gray hair before the age of 30 and cigarette smoking.
- Failing to get enough antioxidants: There is some evidence that oxidative damage, such as occurs from exposure to free radicals, can increase risk of premature graying. In a 2006 study, researchers found that hair follicles that were going gray showed evidence of increased oxidative stress, which they added could lead to premature aging and death in the melanocytes. We fight off free radical damage every day with our diet—the more antioxidants we consume, the more damage we avoid. Antioxidants are present in all fruits and vegetables, and we can also get them from supplements.
- Stressing out: Studies on stress and graying have produced mixed results, but one thing we do know: chronic stress isn’t good for the body, and affects both the skin and the hair. According to a 2011 study, the “fight or flight” response promotes the release of stress hormones that can cause DNA damage, which may affect the melanocytes and hair follicles. Stress also produces more internal damaging free radicals.
You may have heard the myth that coloring your hair makes it go gray faster, but there is no evidence that this is true.
How to Naturally Protect Your Hair Color
Though we can’t control our genes, we can incorporate some things into our daily lifestyles that can help slow the rate of graying and preserve more of our natural color. Anything that helps you stay healthier overall—such as exercising regularly, eating well, and getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night—will help improve the health of your hair. Similarly, anything you can do to improve the health of your hair and your scalp will help slow the damage that can lead to gray hairs.
- Check your vitamin B: A vitamin B12 deficiency is connected with premature gray hair, so check with your doctor. A blood test can show if you’re getting enough. If you’re deficient, supplements may help. In one study, researchers found that when a B12 deficiency was resolved, the hair color returned to normal.
- Consume more antioxidants: Since graying can be brought on by oxidative damage, it may help to get more antioxidants in your diet. This is a healthy idea anyway, as antioxidants protect you from common diseases like heart disease and cancer, too. Consume more fruits and veggies at every meal. Some of the most powerful antioxidant-rich foods include berries, dark chocolate, pecans, kidney beans, grapes, dark green veggies, sweet potatoes, whole grains, tea, and spices like turmeric and cloves.
- Check your selenium: In a study on aging hair, researchers named selenium as an anti-aging “compound of interest” for aging hair. Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that may help protect hair from oxidative damage. Unfortunately, studies have reported that many of us aren’t getting enough. Selenium is found in the soil, but there isn’t as much in our farming areas as there used to be. In a 2017 study, researchers predicted that climate change will increase the prevalence of selenium deficiency.
- Massage in some Indian gooseberry (Amla): You may have heard that rubbing some formulations of Indian gooseberry into your scalp may help slow the process of graying. We don’t have any studies confirming that this works, but there is one animal study showing that when Indian gooseberry was applied to a skin wound, it raised levels of catalase and other antioxidants, which means that it “could” help protect the hair follicle from the over-production of hydrogen peroxide. Mix with coconut oil to help moisturize the hair and scalp.
- Check your copper: In 2012, researchers connected low levels of copper with premature graying. You can check yours with a blood test. Some natural sources of copper include sunflower seeds, almonds, beef liver, lentils, sesame seeds, cashews, and soybeans.
One note of warning: be cautious with supplements. Manufacturers may try to make you believe that certain nutrients can help boost melanin production, but there may be risks, and most of these supplements are not tested by any outside regulatory agencies. We may soon have some other options that we know are safe, but meanwhile, always use caution before believing any marketing hype.
In addition to these steps, you can also use some at-home gray hair remedies to help you avoid dyes. Some good ones to try include:
- Coffee and tea—if you have dark hair, these can help cover your grays. Simply brew like usual, mix with some leave-in conditioner, and let sit on your hair for 30-60 minutes. Depending on your shade, choose your flavors: black tea for dark colors, rooibos for redheads, and chamomile for blondes.
- Herbs—rosemary and sage, amaranth, black seed oil, curry, henna, and more can all help cover the grays. For dark hair, choose rosemary, nettle, and sage. Red hair works best with rosehips, hibiscus, henna, and marigold. Blondes go for chamomile, safflower, and sunflower petals. Simmer in water, then strain, combine with a carrier oil or conditioner, and allow to stay on the hair for 30-60 minutes before rinsing off.
- Beet and carrot juices: These add a reddish tinge to your hair, and can also help cover grays. Simply apply the juice to your hair and let it sit.
If you do decide to embrace your gray, realize that gray hair is dry and dull by nature. To make it look good, regularly apply deep conditioner, try some brightening shampoos and other brightening hair products, and always keep your cut and style well groomed.
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