What Causes Gray Hair?

In our youth-obsessed culture, gray hair is no longer considered the crown of wisdom it once was (in fact, the global hair dye industry makes about $7 billion annually). I often have patients ask me if there is a natural way to turn gray hair back to its original color.

The short answer is, sort of… but it’s not a silver bullet (no pun intended).

Why Stress Makes You Go Gray

This 2009 study caused a stir, revealing the underlying cause of gray hair as the accumulation of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) in the hair follicles. (Makes sense, right? Applying H2O2 topically causes the hair to bleach, too. This just means the same thing happens from the inside out.)

Here’s how it works: catecholamines (dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline) are produced in times of acute high stress. These get broken down by an enzyme called MAO (monoamine oxidase), producing hydrogen peroxide in the process. H2O2 in turn gets turned into water and oxygen via two mechanisms: an enzyme called catalase (which is the one mentioned in the study) or via glutathione, the body’s most potent antioxidant.

As long as your catalase and glutathione stores are up to the challenge, your hair maintains its pigment. But catalase and glutathione production both naturally decline with age–and if you’re under a lot of stress, you can overwhelm even youthful levels of these enzymes, producing excess H2O2, which then builds up in hair follicles and turns the hair gray and eventually white.

Catalase: The Silver Bullet?

In 2013 there was a lot of excitement over the idea of taking catalase as a supplement. But this seems to have all come to naught, as you can tell by searching reviews on catalase supplements online—and by the fact that the hair dye industry is still alive and well. (Presumably it didn’t work because catalase is a very large molecule: it’s comprised of a whole lot of amino acids, which will get broken down into their constituents in the gut. It likely just becomes an expensive protein supplement.)

Glutathione: Anti-Aging?

Glutathione deficiency definitely is a problem, and for more than just your gray hair. Several of your liver’s Phase 2 Detoxification Pathways involve glutathione. So, does that mean you should just take it as a supplement?

The answer is, maybe. It depends on your case. As part of a short-term detox program, glutathione can be a game changer (though I will say if you’re taking it orally, make sure it’s liposomal, as other forms are not absorbable). NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine) is a precursor to glutathione and enables your body to produce it, and in some cases this is also a terrific addition, and cheaper than liposomal glutathione.

But contrary to our previous understanding of the science of aging, which relied almost entirely on the idea that aging occurred as a result of cumulative oxidative damage, we now know that small amounts of pro-oxidants can be beneficial (including even H2O2)!

This may be for the same reason that astronauts age more rapidly in space, absent the stress of gravity; or that muscles build in the presence of microtears produced by the stress of weight lifting; or that developing immune systems flounder in hyper-sterile environments. According to Dr Lee Know in Mitochondria and the Future of Medicine, the mitochondria use the presence of free radicals as a feedback mechanism, indicating the need for repair. Lacking this feedback (perhaps due to taking too many antioxidants), the mitochondria deteriorate, leading to true aging and decline in function.

The Upshot: Keep Your Body’s Antioxidant Production Healthy

So the answer isn’t to take catalase, nor to take long-term NAC or glutathione, then (at least not for everyone). What can you do to keep your hair, and your body generally, as youthful as possible, for as long as possible?

It’s going to be the basics, really:

  • Manage Your Stress. Make sure you’ve got good techniques to alleviate stress so H2O2 can’t build up and deplete all your enzymes prematurely!
  • Keep Your Liver Happy. Since this is where the bulk of your glutathione gets used up, the cleaner you manage to keep your liver, the healthier your glutathione levels will be—and therefore, the more will be available to quench H2O2 as it’s produced.
  • Take a Good Multivitamin. A few vitamins and minerals are especially important here (Vitamin B2 and selenium), but antioxidants all work together in tandem. Deficiency here will deplete your body’s endogenous antioxidant capacity just as surely as toxicity will.
  • Eat your garlic and onions. Glutathione is comprised of cysteine, glycine, and glutamine (three amino acids)—the sulphur-containing garlic and onions can provide cysteine as a building block. Glycine and glutamine are more ubiquitous in food (for the non-vegans out there. If you’re vegan, you may need to supplement with glutamine at least, as glycine can be found in beans.)

There might be a final solution coming down the pipeline for gray hair eventually… but unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.

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