You can classify grey hair into two types:
1.) Grey hair that occurs as is expected, with increasing age
2.) Premature grey hair that occurs long before the appropriate age sets in
The causes of grey hair in each of these instances often differ.
How do you know if you’re greying prematurely or if it’s just your time?
The average age of grey hairs to first appear seems to be around the late 20s, early 30s, but usually at this age the odd white hair is not really noticeable. It becomes noticeable when a large percentage of your head hair turns grey.
Premature grey hair is broadly classified as a situation where more than 50% of a person’s hair is grey before they are 40 years old.
Causes of prematurely grey hair
There are many possible reasons for premature greying. The main ones are described below:
1.) Dietary causes for premature greying
Malnutrition can be behind prematurely greying hair.1
Particularly in cases where your parents do not have a history of early greying, diet should be examined carefully as a potential cause.
Some nutritional deficiencies that may be behind premature greying include:
- Copper deficiency2,
- Protein deficiency: Since protein is a major raw material for hair health, it may be linked to greying hair when it is deficient. When protein deficiency is severe it can result in the disease, kwashiorkor, which is known for changes in hair pigmentation.3
- B5 deficiency4-6
- PABA deficiency: Several studies have found that supplementation of the B-vitamin-like nutrient, PABA, has reversed hair greying as long as the supplement was taken. Results seem inconsistent and the mechanism by which it sometimes works is unknown but studies found that about 25% of people experience grey-hair reversal after around 6 weeks of supplementation at large doses of PABA.15 Unfortunately the colour was lost again within 3-4 weeks of stopping PABA supplementation. It may be that the people who responded to treatment were those who were deficient in PABA to begin with, and those with sufficient PABA levels did not respond to treatment. The dosage used by the researcher in the described experiment was 6 – 24g of PABA a day, which is an extremely high dose. Other authors reported positive results with only 200 mg of PABA a day.16 It should also be noted that high PABA dosage can cause diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, skin irritation and liver irritation, and in children doses of 20g can be lethal, so I would avoid supplementing high doses in adults too. It seems research is still inconclusive about what the best, safe dosage of PABA would be. Naturopathic Nutritionist, Dr Elson Haas suggests that some authorities supplementing with PABA for the purpose of reversing premature greying give 1000mg of PABA a day17, whilst others recommend not going over 400mg a day.
- Iodine deficiency7 : This causes hypothyroidism, which may decrease circulation of nutrients to the hair follicle as mentioned below (see Poor nourishment of hair due to poor circulation)
It is possible that other nutrient deficiencies may contribute to premature greying too.
It is interesting to note that often appetite and state of nourishment decrease with age, which makes me wonder if this may be a contributing factor to increased greying with old age.
In some cases, a person may be eating a good diet, rich in nutrients, but their gut health and digestion isn’t functioning well which means they may not be absorbing enough nutrients, and may therefore exhibit premature greying from nutritional deficiencies. In such cases, working on improving digestion with a Nutritionist or Naturopath can be helpful in preventing premature greying.
Things that deplete nutrients may also increase risk of nutritional deficiencies and associated premature greying. The main thing that depletes nutrients is stress. Stress can come in many forms, from internal stressors like inflammation, certain psychological states and disease (e.g. hyperthyroidism which uses up the body’s resources at an elevated rate), to external stressors like sun exposure, radiation, pollution and smoking. When stressors enter the equation, nutrients are used up faster than usual so you need more nutrients to replenish those that are used, otherwise deficiencies may result.
The good news is that prematurely greying due to malnourishment may be temporary, and potentially resolvable upon correction of the dietary deficiencies.
Note that these nutrients may help prevention of prematurely greying hair *only if* their deficiency is the driver behind it in the first place. Nevertheless, a good multivitamin like Nature’s Plus’ Nutri-Genic Softgels (iodine-free) or Nature’s Plus’ Source Of Life Liquid (contains iodine) would be beneficial for most people, and an occasional protein shake like “Whey To Go” can be a great snack.
2.) Poor nourishment of hair due to poor circulation
Sometimes you have enough nutrients in your body but due to poor circulation, they don’t make their way to the head in abundant amounts. This makes me wonder if this may partly have something to do with why as you get older and are less active, you are more prone to get grey hair.
Hypothyroidism is linked to poor circulation of nutrients, and it too has sometimes been associated with premature greying of hair.7
To get circulation going you can apply the following:
- Exercise: Make sure you’re active, and getting at least 30 minutes exercise 3 times a week.
- Deep breathing: Every day do 5-10 minuets of deep breathing exercises to encourage good circulation. It’s also great for stress management. If you combine deep breathing with a clearing of your mind and concentration on your breath, it is equivalent in its beneficial stress-fighting effect to meditation.
- Massage: Full body massage helps get your juices flowing! You could also do just a scalp massage if your focus is on hair health. There are Indian Head Massages for this purpose, or you could do it yourself: Whilst washing your hair, take time out to massage your head gently with your fingertips for 5-10 minutes to improve circulation to your scalp.
- Eat circulation-boosting foods. These include pungent and spicy foods like Chilli, ginger, cayenne pepper, black pepper, garlic, apple cider vinegar, rosemary and turmeric.
- Dry skin brushing can aid circulation. Some nice brushes you can get in the US include Body Brush Purest Palm 9″ L and Body Brush Natural Bristles.
- Hot/Cold therapy: Alternating between hot and cold temperatures stimulates circulation. This is why alternating saunas and steam rooms with a plunge in a cool pool can be good to get circulation going.
3.) Oxidation and free radical damage
There is a theory that oxidative and free radical damage of cells are behind premature greying of hair.8 The theory here is that hairs go grey because somewhere in the hair pigment production pathway, cells are damaged due to oxidative stress. The damaged cells are unable to carry out their functions, pigment cannot be made and cells go grey. Not only have Arck et al.8 found evidence for this free radical theory of greying, but also several activities that increase oxidation and free radical formation have been associated with premature greying of hair. These activities are listed below:
Smoking has been found to increase risk of premature greying of hair.9, The mechanism is unclear, though it may be linked to the “cell damage by oxidation and free radical formation” theory. Other possible mechanisms could be that smoking puts the body under stress, and this stress may deplete the body’s nutrients, contributing to nutritional deficiencies which can cause premature greying, as already discussed. Another possible mechanism is that smoking contributes to poor circulation of blood which also increases risk of premature greying.
b.) Hydrogen peroxide build-up
Hydrogen peroxide is a strong oxidant, and although it is uncertain whether dying your hair blonde with it increases the risk of premature greying, some studies suggest hydrogen peroxide is linked to premature ageing of cells.11 Extrapolation of this could suggest hydrogen peroxide build-up may contribute to the destruction of pigment-producing cells.
Natural hydrogen peroxide is produced in the body too in normal metabolism. Usually it is broken down by an enzyme called catalase so that it doesn’t accumulate, however in conditions like vitiligo it is known to accumulate to higher-than-normal levels, potentially contributing to premature greying in vitilgo patients. In ageing cells, their breakdown of hydrogen peroxide is also less efficient which may partly contribute to increased greying of hair with age.11
Psychological stress may give rise to oxidative stress12. Although stress has not been formally linked to greying of hair scientifically, anecdotal stories of such occurrences do exist.
It could be that greying of hair that has been associated with stress may be related to hair loss in response to stress. Hair loss is a known side effect of stress, and mass hair loss gives the opportunity for mass new hair growth. If a person has lost melanocytes, usually it takes a while to perceive this change because you have to wait until a pigmented hair falls out in order for the new unpigmented hair to grow in its place. But if there has been hair loss, then lots of new hairs grow at once, none of which have melanocytes behind them to make melanin, so it appears as though suddenly you have a lot of grey hairs, but this wouldn’t have occurred if you didn’t have that mass hair loss that was brought on by stress.
d.) Sun exposure
Dr. Bihova, the assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center, says that whilst there’s no unequivocal evidence for this, overexposure to the sun may increase risk of premature greying.13
If this is true, perhaps there may be a link to the oxidative effect of sunlight and the greying of hair.
(a.) The Bcl2 gene deficiency
Genes do seem to play a factor in the age of onset of greying hair. One particular gene contributing to greying is the Bcl2 gene. People with a specific genetic mutation for this gene, (a mutation known as “Bcl2 deficiency”) have been found to have increased destruction of the pigment-producing cells in hair follicles; cells known as melanocyte stem cells.14 (These cells are discussed in “Why does hair go grey?”). The more melanocytes stem cells are destroyed, the more grey the individual is likely to become.
(b.) Werner syndrome genetic disorder
Another genetic reason for prematurely grey hair and ageing is the rare Werner syndrome, where individuals can look elderly by age 30-40.
Genetic predisposition to develop the autoimmune disease vitiligo increases risk of premature greying of hair which is seen together with skin colour changes.
Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective: Kidney Problems
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), TCM kidney health controls hair health, and premature greying of hair is a clear indicator of a TCM Kidney pathology, like Kidney Jing Deficiency. A visit to a TCM practitioner can treat the problem from this perspective.
NB. It’s important to remember that the TCM Kidney is not the literal equivalent of what we consider to be the kidney organs in Western Medicine.
There’s a very interesting-sounding Chinese herb called He Shou Wu (also known as Fo Ti or Ho Shou Wu) which may be appropriate for some people in dealing with greying hair, but I would certainly recommend seeing a practitioner before taking a herb like this.
Ayurvedic perspective: Excess Pitta
An Ayurvedic practitioner may conclude that premature greying is the result of too much “pitta” in the system. A visit to an Ayurvedic practitioner will be helpful if you want to go for treatment via the Ayurvedic approach.
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Every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained in this article is accurate. However the information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Suggestions contained in this article are not intended as a substitute for consultation with a health professional. All matters regarding health and supplementation require medical supervision and careful examination of contraindications and possible interactions. The author does not accept responsibility for the use of this information, nor shall the author be liable for any loss, injury or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestions in this article.
1.) McKenzie et al. 2007. Childhood malnutrition is associated with a reduction in the total melanin content of scalp hair. Br J Nutr. Jul;98(1):159-64.
2.) Uauy et al. 1998. Essentialilty of copper in humans. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 67(Supplement):952S-959S.
3.) Lunn et al. 1998. A case of kwashiorkor in the UK. Clin Nutr. Jun;17(3):131-3.
5.) Kelly et al. 1997. Pantethine: a review of its biochemistry and therapeutic applications. Alternative Medicine Review. 2(5):365-377.
8.) Arck et al. 2006. Towards a “free radical theory of graying”: melanocyte apoptosis in the aging human hair follicle is an indicator of oxidative stress induced tissue damage. FASEB J. 20, 1567–1569
9.) Blechman et al. 2000. Smoking accelerates aging process. Muscular Development. 37(12):52
10.) Mosley & Gibbs 1996. Premature grey hair and hair loss among smokers: a new opportunity for health education? BMJ 313 : 1616
11.) Schallreuter et al. 2009. FASEB Journal. The Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology. Research by researchers of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany and the University of Bradford in Great Britain
12.) Ellard et al. 2006. Perceived stress, psychological wellbeing and the activity of neutrophils in patients undergoing cardiopulmonary bypass surgery. Stress and Health 2006;22:143-52
14.) Nishimura et al. 2005. Mechanisms of Hair Graying: Incomplete Melanocyte Stem Cell Maintenance in the Niche. Science 4 February 2005: Vol. 307 no. 5710 pp. 720-724
15.) Zarafonetis. 1964. Darkening of gray hair during para-amino-benzoic acid therapy. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 399-401.
16.) Sieve. 1941. Clinical achromotrichia. Science. 94:257.