Scientists have long known that being under stress can turn your hair gray, or accelerate the natural graying process. But until now, there was no evidence that you can get your normal-colored hairs back when you’re more relaxed.

Side by side comparison images of Bill Clinton before and after his presidency, showing drastic hair color change
These photos reveal how former President Bill Clinton went gray during his term from 1993 to 1999. Naturally, most people do go gray as they age, but Clinton’s dramatic change suggests the many pressures of the office are definitely not good for your hair color (Tani, 2020).

Now, a small study from a large international team recently found that this much-desired cosmetic miracle is indeed possible (Rosenberg et al., 2021).

Of course, gray or white hair arrives for nearly everyone with time, and you may simply choose to accept your new color palette.

But if your tresses lose color in a short time, that may be a sign that you’re undergoing an ordeal. If so, you might be able to get some of those colorful or brown or black hairs back.

What the scientists did

While hairs are growing, hair cells receive chemical and electrical signals from inside the body, including from stress hormones. These signals seem to change color-influencing proteins under the roots, and those proteins harden once the hair grows out of the scalp (Taylor, 2021).

For the new study, the team’s first step was to identify proteins that show if a strand was gray, white, or colored at any point in its history. There turned out to be 323 color-influencing proteins in all. “Just like tree rings hold information about past decades, and rocks hold information about past centuries, hairs hold information about past months and years,” they wrote (Rosenberg et al., 2021).

To check how the protein history of a strand matched with the experience of stress, they recruited fourteen volunteers who provided hair samples and also answered questions about how stressful their lives had been in the last year.

Looking at the proteins in the hair strands at different points allowed the team to see that some hairs that were now brown or another color had been gray or white earlier in the year.

The switch from colored to gray, and back, may happen quickly and on hair anywhere on the body. One woman went on a trip for two weeks and regained five hairs with color (Taylor, 2021). How could the scientists match the colors and timing so closely? They knew that hair grows about a centimeter a month.

Not everyone showed evidence of regaining color, and it didn’t happen in any volunteers over the age of 40 in this study. And as the research above indicates, even when hair color does reverse, it may happen in so few strands that no one notices.

The secret to changing color lies in stem cells, the body's raw materials. Stem cells generate all other cells with specific roles. When your hair regains its color, stem cells called melanocytes are probably at work affecting the expression of those proteins. But we don’t know yet whether people have only a set number of melanocytes or if they can be replenished by stem cells from another part of the body. Down the line, there might be a stem-cell booster to turn hairs back to their original shade. 

As for hair loss, more research will tell us if de-stressing can reverse this later in life.

Fish oil can make a difference in hair quality

Happy woman holding daily vitamin capsule and water glass
Omega-3 fatty acids appear to have a positive influence on both hair thickness and color.

Normally with age our hormones change, leading our hair to shed more and grow back more slowly. This causes it to appear thinner. Other hormonal changes make hair drier, which leads to a less lustrous appearance.

Your diet can make a difference. Early evidence with mice suggests that an extract of fermented fish oil from mackerel, which was particularly high in the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), promotes hair growth (Kang, 2018).

Earlier, a French study with 120 women found that over six months, those who took a supplement containing omega-3s had less hair loss and more growth (Le Floc’h, 2015). A California study testing a particular fish-oil supplement had similar results over 90 days (Ablon, 2015).

What else can I do?

If you’re younger or think your problem is extreme, talk to your doctor. Hair loss can be a symptom of many illnesses, including polycystic ovary syndrome, ringworm on your scalp, thyroid disorders, and autoimmune diseases. Having a baby, going on or off birth control pills, viruses, smoking,  low iron (anemia), and various medications can lead to hair loss or thinning (Gardner, 2020),

Zinc pyrithione, an ingredient in many dandruff shampoos, can help a drying scalp even if you don’t have dandruff and may help prevent hair loss (Berger, 2003).

Massaging your scalp can promote hair growth, too (Koyama, 2016).

Then there’s acceptance. If you’re feeling good and your hair has gone gray or white from age, I’d say it’s an excellent time to favor silver jewelry; try wearing deep blues, bright red, lavender, stark white or black.

And celebrate your wisdom and perspective over intimate salmon dinners, which can’t hurt.

 

Sources:

Ablon G. A 3-month, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study evaluating the ability of an extra-strength marine protein supplement to promote hair growth and decrease shedding in women with self-perceived thinning hair. Dermatology research and practice2015, 841570. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/841570 E-published March, 2015. 

Berger, R. S., Fu, J. L., Smiles, K. A., Turner, C. B., Schnell, B. M., Werchowski, K. M., & Lammers, K. M.. The effects of minoxidil, 1% pyrithione zinc and a combination of both on hair density: a randomized controlled trial. The British journal of dermatology149(2), 354–362. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2133.2003.05435.x  Published August, 2003.

Gardner S. Surprising reasons your hair is falling out. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/hair-loss/ss/slideshow-hair-fallout. Published August 31, 2020.

Kang, J. I., Yoon, H. S., Kim, S. M., Park, J. E., Hyun, Y. J., Ko, A., Ahn, Y. S., Koh, Y. S., Hyun, J. W., Yoo, E. S., & Kang, H. K. Mackerel-Derived Fermented Fish Oil Promotes Hair Growth by Anagen-Stimulating Pathways. International journal of molecular sciences. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19092770. Published Sept., 2018.

Koyama T, Kobayashi K, Hama T, Murakami K, Ogawa R. Standardized Scalp Massage Results in Increased Hair Thickness by Inducing Stretching Forces to Dermal Papilla Cells in the Subcutaneous Tissue. Eplasty. 2016;16:e8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4740347/ Published Jan 25, 2016

Le Floc'h, C., Cheniti, A., Connétable, S., Piccardi, N., Vincenzi, C., & Tosti, A. (2015). Effect of a nutritional supplement on hair loss in women. Journal of cosmetic dermatology14(1), 76–82. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocd.12127  E-published Jan 8, 2015.

Rosenberg, A. M., Rausser, S., Ren, J., Mosharov, E. V., Sturm, G., Ogden, R. T., Patel, P., Kumar Soni, R., Lacefield, C., Tobin, D. J., Paus, R., & Picard, M. Quantitative mapping of human hair greying and reversal in relation to life stress. eLife10, e67437. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34155974/ Published June 22, 2021.

Tani M. Before-and-after photos show how dramatically presidents aged in office. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-presidents-aging-before-after-2016-12#heres-clinton-giving-a-brief-speech-toward-the-end-of-his-term-in-october-2000-10. Published April 14, 2020.

Taylor C. Yes, we can reverse gray hair. no, we don't know why it works. just chill. Mashable. https://mashable.com/article/how-to-reverse-gray-hair. Published August 6, 2021.