Stress makes you go grey, not just an old wives’ tale

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by our Science-Health correspondent

If not just yet, then one day you’ll notice a grey hair or two and then three and then four and before you know it eventually hairs will be going grey in the funniest of places.

Some notice it earlier than others and it appears stress is a key factor in early greying.  Scientists believe too much stress really can ‘turn you grey’, it’s not just an old wives’ tale, just ask an old wife, or better still ask Obama – his current salt and pepper look arrived quicker than you can say budget deficit.

It is has been long known that extended elevated levels of the stress hormone adrenaline punishes the body.  During very brief, intense periods of stress, adrenaline prepares the body for fight or flight but when the stress goes on and on, day after day it starts degrading cell DNA.

Superficial early ageing such as greying of hair and even serious illness such as cancer are thought to be related to too much adrenaline in the body over lengthy time periods.

Professor Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University, North Carolina believed adrenaline was causing hair to grey early and decided to test the idea.

Researchers infused an adrenalin-like compound into mice over extended periods of time to mimic the effects of experiencing long-term exposure to adrenaline – stimulating the beta adrenergic receptor – producing the biological effects of stress.

Levels of a key anti-cancer protein called p53 (“guardian of the genome”) decreased over time.  P53 is a well-known protein which helps repair damaged DNA, assisting potentially cancerous cells to carry out repairs, or if beyond repair, alternatively helping cells commit suicide – avoiding the potential development of a tumour.

DNA damage is thought to impact on the cells that go on to produce the pigment in hair.  The theory is that because the adrenaline induced stress, levels of P53 were lowered, the DNA couldn’t repair itself and consequently the hair pigment cells are no longer able to manufacture pigment.

Importantly, the study showed DNA damage was prevented in the study mice lacking a protein known as beta-arrestin 1.  Loss of it stabilised levels of p53 both in the thymus, an organ that strongly responds to acute or chronic stress, and in the testes where paternal stress might affect an offspring’s genome.  The evidence therefore suggests that blocking the action of beta-arrestin 1 may stop adrenaline from attacking the body from within.

Prof Lefkowitz said: “We believe this paper is the first to propose a specific mechanism through which a hallmark of chronic stress, elevated adrenaline, could eventually cause DNA damage that is detectable.”

Most UK adults develop their first grey hairs about 25 years of age, with genetic factors, alcohol consumption, smoking and diet all being contributing factors that increase the likelihood of early greying or even deadly illness – stress is now part of this list.

Research for its own sake is valuable but this research may eventually lead to the development of a drug to block the effects of adrenaline on hair pigment fading to stop people going prematurely grey as well as counter some of the medical problems caused by always being under pressure.

At some point in the future, it is possible that a drug that stops the protein beta-arrestin 1 from working may counter the effects of stress: no more early greying or increased risk of getting cancer.

Now, if they can just find a cure for that pesky ‘thinning on top’ syndrome …