It’s been considered an old wives’ tale for years, but this year researchers finally found proof: stress does indeed turn our hair gray.

In a study published by Nature, researchers tested their theory on mice and not only discovered the hypothesis is true, but they have also figured out the mechanisms that cause this change.

But why?

To find out why stress turns hair gray, researchers first needed to isolate the system that links our hair to our production of cortisol, the stress hormone.

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After various trials, scientists were able to link the graying of hair to the sympathetic nerve system which is responsible for the “fight or flight” feeling that can come over you in highly stressful situations. This system releases a chemical, which is then taken up by the cells that manage color regeneration. When we’re feeling stressed, this chemical process is activated prematurely, which depletes the stores of the color-giving compounds.

Looking ahead

Though it would be great if this discovery could help us with our graying hairlines, that may not be on the agenda for some time. “By understanding precisely how stress affects stem cells that regenerate pigment, we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding how stress affects other tissues and organs in the body,” explained senior author Ya-Chieh Hsu, Ph.D.

However, researchers in the future may be able to look at developing ways to modify or block the pathway that causes these changes altogether. But, like your hair turning gray — it won’t happen overnight.