A while ago the photo below was circulating around the internet. The photo shows the American former president before and after his presidency. At the beginning of his presidency, Obama’s hair color was still clearly black, but eight years later it was suddenly completely gray. This made him look fifteen years older.
Barack Obama at the beginning of his presidency in 2009 (left) and at the end in 2017 (right).
Research by Dr. Marieke Tollenaar, psychologist at Leiden University, shows that people who experience a lot of stress are biologically older than people who experience less stress. On average about two to three years. But do you also see this in our hair, as seems to be the case with Obama?
Stress makes colorless
“When a hair starts growing, it needs a lot of things,” says Tollenaar. For example, the hair needs dye, or melanin, among other things. Melanin is made in cells in the hair follicles. We used to think that the stress hormone cortisol was mainly the culprit when it comes to aging, but another stress hormone, adrenaline, also appears to play a role. Adrenaline causes the cells in our hair follicles to become exhausted more quickly, meaning they can no longer produce melanin. Eventually they can even break. No more melanin is added to the hair and the result is colorless, or gray, hair. A long stressful period can therefore cause new hair to lose color and turn gray.
What is stress?
Stress is an ancient mechanism, meant to survive dangerous situations. When you experience stress, the brain area called the amygdala comes into action. This area of the brain responds to the event by sending signals to another area of the brain, the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream. The combination of these two hormones makes you alert and allows you to respond adequately to the stressful situation. When the situation is over, your brain ensures that your body relaxes again.
Some people are more susceptible to stress than others, Tollenaar says. This may be because you are genetically constructed slightly differently, which means you have more receptors on your cells for the stress hormones. It may also be because you experienced many stressful situations at a young age, which made you more sensitive to stress later in life. “Everyone turns gray eventually. And your genetics determine whether that happens at the age of twenty, thirties or forties. But there is variation, depending on what you experience. And that could be how much stress you experience, but also how you deal with it. And whether, for example, you have smoked or drunk alcohol,” Tollenaar explains. Stress does indeed appear to contribute to gray hair.
You probably know that stress is unhealthy. But does it also make you grow old faster? In this online lecture from the University of the Netherlands, psychologist Marieke Tollenaar (Leiden University) explains that too much stress is not very conducive to your youthful appearance.
In addition to gray hair, stress hormones cause even more in our body. The stress hormone cortisol can directly send signals to our cells and determine which genes are on and off. Cortisol therefore has a detrimental effect on our cells, because they are put to work hard by the hormone. “Our stress hormones accelerate the activity and development of cells,” says Tollenaar. This depletes them and reduces their lifespan. The cells must therefore be repaired or replaced more quickly. This process is not endless. Cells eventually age and at a certain point the cells can no longer repair or divide properly. Biologically speaking, you then age faster. This aging is reflected in your appearance because you get gray hair, but, according to Tollenaar, stress also makes you more likely to develop bald spots between your hair, wrinkles and less elastic skin.
What does chronic stress do to us?
If several stressful periods follow each other, the stress hormones remain continuously present in our body. In this case we speak of chronic stress. Chronic stress has adverse effects on our appearance, causing us to develop gray hair and wrinkles more quickly, for example. But chronic stress is also bad for our health. For example, one of our stress hormones, cortisol, ensures that less energy goes to certain parts of our immune system and our digestive system. This slows down these processes and, for example, makes us more likely to catch a cold. Cortisol also increases our cholesterol levels. Our body expects that a lot of fuel is needed to deal with the stressful situation. A high cholesterol level increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. Finally, chronic stress can lead to mental complaints such as burnout or depression.
Can we turn back the clock?
In some cases, our gray hair can regain color. Tollenaar explains that if you start going gray during a stressful situation, there may still be some melanin in the hair cells. If you were to reduce your stress at that moment in such a way that the cells would work less hard, you could use the melanin in your cells for longer. This way our gray hair can regain its color. “If you get there in time, you can slow down the process,” Tollenaar concludes. However, she warns that this will only be temporary and that more research into this is necessary.
So what can you do to prevent the adverse effects of stress? According to Tollenaar, it is important to first find out why you are so stressed. “If you notice that you are becoming very stressed about things that don’t actually make someone else that stressed, it could mean that you are perhaps not in the right place in terms of work, or that you may be making things bigger in your head, or don’t know how to deal with it.”
It is then wise to change something about that situation or the way you deal with it. Tollenaar recommends that at such a moment you work with your doctor or a psychologist to see what you can do to relieve your stress. According to Tollenaar, there is also hope when it comes to our gray hair: “You can already have hair implanted these days, so why not melanin cells?”