Healthy Mind

It’s True, Stress Can Turn Your Hair Gray—and Now Scientists Know Why

Mary Grace Garis

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The term Marie Antoinette syndrome comes from a particularly grim time in Marie Antoinette’s life; it doesn’t refer to eating macarons soundtracked to Gang of Four as Sofia Coppola might have you believe. See, when Marie Antoinette was awaiting execution, her beautiful strawberry blonde locks gave way to white hair from stress, no powder required. That’s the hearsay, at least. I wasn’t around in 1793, but “getting beheaded” definitely sounds stressful. Marie Antoinette syndrome has always been kind of mysterious and even doubted. But recent research from Harvard University scientists supports that not only is getting white hair from stress legit, but they’ve found the specific correlation.

The study, published in Nature, first recognized how stress affects the whole body (which it does in ways you probably never even thought of). That means that researchers needed to target which body system was responsible for connecting stress to hair color. After some trial and error (the stress hormone cortisol was cleared of all charges), a culprit was found: the sympathetic nerve system, the body’s fight-or-flight response.

Sympathetic nerves branch out into hair follicles, experiencing stress causes nerves to release the chemical norepinephrine. Why does that matter? Because norepinephrine causes certain stem cells to convert into pigment-producing cells, which prematurely depletes a reservoir of color in a hair follicle. And there you are, a beautiful 29-year-old streaked with gray.

The wildest part is you’re not just going to have a rough day at the office, get a skunk streak, and have it recover. Once you get white hair from stress, there is no manifesting your natural color back into existence. Sorry, babe.

“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,” said the paper’s senior author Ya-Chieh Hsu, PhD. “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.”

All drama aside, this doesn’t need to be a bigtime bummer! Think about all the amazing gray-haired icons out there! Andy Warhol! George Clooney! Miranda Priestly! Roger Sterling from Mad Men! MARIE ANTOINETTE. Yes, many of those examples have utilized wigs/are fictional. Nonetheless, you’re in good company, you elegant, stressed-out silver fox. Likewise, totally fine if you want to get friendly with a colorist and cover up those bad boys, too.

Ultimately, the color of your hair matters less than than a brain on the fast track to burnout. So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, close your eyes, take a whiff of some lavender essential oil, and think of France. It could always be worse.

Need to feign a sense of calm without picking up a wig? A body language shares how to look cool in high-stress situations. Or learn a few Ayurvedic techniques to get in a better headspace.

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