By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
A distinguished head of gray, salt and pepper hair, silver streaks --- it all says the same thing: you’re going gray. The arrival of gray hairs is traditionally the sign of old age and it can trigger the typical mid-life crisis, leading to a run on the hair dye or hours spent in the salon hiding gray hairs.
But is gray hair inevitable? Studies show that not everyone goes gray, and the reasons why are surprising.
One theory states that gray hair is caused by high levels of hydrogen peroxide in your system. Therefore, lowering these levels can stop your hair going gray. True? And is there anything else you can eat, or do, that actually stops gray hair in the first place?
Gray Hair is a Normal Part of Aging: True?
The commonly quoted statistic is that at the age of 50, 50 percent of the population has at least 50 percent gray hair.
However, new research shows that less than 25 percent of people have much gray hair at that age. And that one in 10 people over the age of 60 does not have any gray hair at all. A 2012 study by cosmetics manufacturers L’Oreal published in the British Journal of Dermatology, involved analysis of the hair color of over 4,000 men and women across the world.
Age is not necessarily linked with a silver mane.
So what is?
What Causes Gray Hair?
Aging does certainly make a difference to the number of gray hairs you find, but there are other factors at play.
For example, your ethnicity makes a difference as Caucasians go gray earlier than other races.
Stress also is implicated in the development of gray hair.
And your lifestyle makes a difference, too. Smoking is a big stressor of the hair. You will also see more gray hairs when you lack certain vitamins, or have higher levels of certain compounds in the body.
So, can you change your diet or your lifestyle to keep your natural color longer?
Hair turns gray when the cells that produce color stop generating any pigment. And hydrogen peroxide, which normally would turn you blond if directly applied to the hair, can make you gray if levels build up in the body.
What Is the Link Between Hydrogen Peroxide and Gray Hair?
Researchers have recently discovered a different mechanism for gray hair that was otherwise not discussed.
The cells in our hair naturally produce the compound hydrogen peroxide, the same bleaching compound that you use at home to disinfect and which women in decades past used to turn themselves into "peroxide blondes".
But when your body produces too much hydrogen peroxide, it causes oxidative stress and turns your hair gray. In effect, you bleach your hair from within.
So why does your hair get gray as you age? The link between gray hair and aging is because our bodies are not as good at breaking down hydrogen peroxide as we get older.
This is according to a 2013 study from the University of Bradford in the UK and the University of Greifswald, north-eastern Germany. The researchers looked at 2,411 people with the skin pigment condition vitiligo. The study suggests that gray hair could one day be a thing of the past as levels of hydrogen peroxide are adjusted to prevent the formation of gray hairs.
So, If You Lower the Hydrogen Peroxide in Your Body, Can You Beat Gray Hair?
Unfortunately, there is no such simple solution to high levels of hydrogen peroxide as this is produced naturally within the body and cannot be stopped.
However, since hydrogen peroxide gives off free radicals – and causes oxidative stress – when it decomposes, and the stress causes gray hair, you could theoretically counter the effect of hydrogen peroxide with antioxidants.
The 2013 study discussed above suggests that a compound that reverses oxidative stress can “cure” gray hair or loss of skin color.
Many foods, drinks, and supplements are high in antioxidants. Cleaning up your diet to include high levels of antioxidants and low levels of fat, sugar, and salt could give your hair – as well as the rest of your body – a boost that prevents gray hair forming at an early age.
Can You Eat to Beat Gray Hair?
There are other ways in which your diet and lifestyle can affect the number of gray hairs you have. Low levels of Vitamin B12 are linked with loss of hair pigment.
According to a 2016 study from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, low levels of vitamin B12 in mice turned their fur gray. In the study mice develop skin irritation and graying of the hair when they were deficient in Vitamin B12.
If you like mussels, you're in luck. Mussels are rich in Vitamin B12. Each serving has bout 20 micrograms of Vitamin B12, which is about 8.5 times the daily recommended amount. Other foods like liver, sardines and egg yolks, are also rich in Vitamin B12, and therefore good for your hair.
Can Walnuts Keep You from Going Gray?
Walnuts could be good for keeping up the production of melanin, the pigment that causes hair coloration. Walnuts contain biotin, vitamin E and omega oils, which are good for this purpose.
Get Your Iron and Keep Moving to Banish Gray Hair
In addition to eating your walnuts, you better make sure you get your iron and get up and move.
A 2016 study from Hairline International Hair Clinic in Karnataka, India identifies low iron levels, low Vitamin B12 levels, irregular eating habits, and a sedentary lifestyle as factors associated with premature hair graying in the Indian population.
Does Stress Cause Gray Hair?
Anyone looking at the before-and-after pictures of American Presidents would answer this question with a resounding "yes".
But, it turns out, the common attitude that stress and shock turns your hair white, but it is not so clear cut as this.
A 2009 study from Tokyo Medical and Dental University, however, did show that gray hairs are a sign of stress. But it is a form of geotoxic stress, the type of stress that damages the cells in the follicles. It’s not easy to prevent, though – the researchers say that “It is estimated that a single cell in mammals can encounter approximately 100,000 DNA damaging events per day.”
Smoking and Gray Hair
If you want to change your life to help beat gray hair, you really need to stop smoking. A 2013 study from Jordan University Hospital in Jordan shows that there is a definite link between smoking and turning gray before you are 30 years old.
It could therefore be possible to increase your vitamin and mineral intake, pack your diet with antioxidants, stop smoking, lower your stress, and keep active, in order to eat away gray hair.
But are there any other factors at play?
A Genetic Reason for Gray Hair
It seems that even if you have the best diet in the world and are hugely fit, you could still get gray hair at an early age. The cause of gray hair is linked to your genes.
A 2016 study from University College London in the UK revealed the first gene responsible for gray hair - a variant in the gene interferon regulatory factor 4 (IRF4).
To reach their findings the team looked at the DNA of 6,357 people from five Latin American countries. They analyzed their hair traits and compared them to their genomes. The IRF4 gene helps to regulate the production and storage of melanin.
So you may be able to prevent your hair going gray by limiting the oxidative stress on your hair cells, but this won’t make much of a difference if you are “genetically programed” to go gray.