To hear our parents tell it, every gray or white hair on their heads is a relic from the stress we caused them as kids. But does stress cause gray hair? The answer is currently undetermined; scientists have not been able to conclusively prove a connection between hair color and stress. However, we can safely say that stress plays a role as our bodies change over time.
How Stress Works With -- and Against -- You
When we are stressed, our bodies respond accordingly. A typical reaction is the classic "fight or flight" response, which denotes a surge of hormones in our body. This isn't abnormal or unhealthy, as fight or flight can provide motivation to, for example, meet a tight deadline. However, when we're experiencing chronic stress, this once-useful response becomes detrimental. Here are a few ways that stress affects our bodies over time:
- Increased cortisol, a stress hormone, can cause a rise in blood sugar and blood pressure, raising the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
- Raised cortisol secretion is also linked with weight gain, especially when food-related coping methods are used.
- Stress destroys cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. This can result in memory-loss problems, particularly in older adults, and may be a factor in developing Alzheimer's disease.
Other Health Risks
Any kind of illness, disease, or condition may be affected by chronic stress. Stress is capable of reducing our immunity and worsening allergies. There is also an increased risk of relying on poor coping mechanisms, such as smoking and substance abuse. Plus, sleep deprivation because of stress can contribute to many problems, such as obesity or difficulty concentrating. At the end of the day, graying hair seems like the least of our concerns!
What You Can Do to Reduce Stress
Thankfully, there are many stress-reducing techniques to combat its effects on the human body:
- Mindfulness. Identifying your stressors is a key first step to overcoming them. Be mindful of your feelings throughout the day, and record the things that cause stress in your life. Once the sources are clear, you can decide how to best address them.
- Relaxation. Whether it's meditation, yoga, or deep breathing, numerous relaxation techniques exist to help you lower your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
- Exercise. A good way to release stress, exercise also produces endorphins (hormones that lift your mood).
- Laughter. Similar to exercise, laughter lowers blood pressure, releases endorphins, and increases blood flow. Seeing a comedy show or sharing a good laugh with your friends can raise your mood while lowering stress.
- Therapy and medication. If you find that your stress levels are overwhelming, it might be time to seek out a mental-health professional. Therapists will help you learn how to manage stress and counsel you on whether you might benefit from anti-anxiety medication.
- Social support. Don't fight your stress alone! Simply having a network of close friends and family who can make you feel loved and cared for should help you dramatically decrease your stress responses. Other means of gaining this support may be found in religion, service animals or pets, and various support groups.
Does stress cause gray hair? Maybe not, but it certainly does enough damage in other areas to make it a serious concern. Stress arises in a multitude of ways, so it's wise to consider how it's affecting you now and make adjustments for a better, healthier future.