Premature Grey Hair: What Are The Causes?

At a Glance

  • Finding your first grey hair can be quite upsetting but unfortunately there’s no escape, at some stage in life hair loses its color and turns either grey or white, it’s a biological fact of nature.
  • Going grey is often considered a sign of ageing, with most people starting to find grey hairs in their 30s. Some people may go grey even earlier with premature greying being classed as occurring before the age of 20 in Caucasians and before 30 in Africans. (source)
  • Premature greying has been closely linked to genetics but other factors like smoking, autoimmune diseases, nutrition or lack of certain vitamins have also been shown to cause grey hair at an early age.

George Clooney has virtually single handedly made being a silver fox sexy. It can be distinguished and dapper for sure, but at 25…? Yes, even teenagers and young adults can have grey hair, whether it’s just a few strands or a full head of white.

If you have found a few grey hairs at an early age, you may be wondering whether you could have done something to prevent it or if it’s a sign of underlying illness? Grey hair is mainly attributed to genetics but many other factors are believed to play a part too. Let’s start by looking at genetics before exploring other factors like autoimmune disorders, nutritional causes, smoking, substance abuse, stress and environmental damage.

The Genetics Behind Grey Hair

Grey hair occurs when your body stops making enough of the melanin pigment it needs to color hair or from production of hydrogen peroxide which happens as we get older. For a more detailed but concise explanation of the biology behind grey hair, you could watch the following informative clip on YouTube:

Unfortunately you can do very little about the biggest factor which decides when you go grey – I’m talking about your genes. If your parents or grandparents turned grey prematurely then you probably – if not definitely – will too. In a study of undergraduate college students with premature greyness (also known as premature canities) 50.4 percent of those who turned grey early had a positive family history or traits of the same. (source)

Scientists have now discovered that the gene known as IRF4 is likely to be responsible for grey hair, and in particular premature greyness. A study of the DNA of 6,000 people from across Latin America enabled scientists to show that the IRF4 gene which was previously known to be responsible for lighter hair colors in Europeans, is also linked to grey hair color. (source) Using this information could enable future scientists to genetically engineer the DNA attributes of hair before it even sprouts from the scalp to prevent greyness.

If you have got a family history of premature greying, there are already drugs available like Melancor which aim to boost the number of melanin pigments in your hair follicles. Research has also shown that calcium pantothenate can have a preventative and reversing effect on premature grey hair. (source) Neither of these treatments will stop premature greying if it’s in your hereditary make up, but they may help stem the regrowth of more grey.

The Effect of Nutrition, Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies on Premature Greying

Proper nourishment of the hair relies on many vitamins and minerals like zinc, copper, and vitamins C, B12 and E. A deficiency in any these can lead to a breakdown of the metabolic process that gives hair its natural color resulting in greying. Poor diet choices, especially junk food or processed foods, can also accelerate the aging process and result in more grey hair.

A chronic loss of proteins, iron, folic acid, vitamin B12 and copper can often cause premature greying but may be reversed if corrective measures are taken. Otherwise healthy 15 year old girls in a study of premature greying showed low levels of iron, zinc and copper. (source) Although it’s not a primary symptom of a B12 deficiency, grey hair can be a result of vitamin B12 anemia where you have a low blood count because your body lacks a substance that assists in absorbing enough vitamin B12.

Boosting your vitamin B12 and other minerals can help slow the onset of premature greying. Vitamin B12 can be found in a variety of animal products including dairy and eggs; it’s especially high in liver and other organ meats. Some foods like cereals or grains are often fortified with extra B12, but the body generally absorbs B12 much more easily from animal sources than plant derived foods.

Curry has been proven to boost melanin production levels (source); copper or zinc rich foods, especially seafood can also help combat premature greying. You can even get hair products which are enriched with copper or zinc to fight the effects of reduced melanin production. You could try making your own homemade curry leaf hair oil to reverse premature grey hairs as shown in this interesting YouTube clip:

Homemade Curry Leaves Hair Oil for Hair Growth & Premature Greying

Stress and Its Effect on Premature Grey Hair

I used to tell people that I had a paper round in Baghdad to explain my early greying, but contrary to popular belief, stress doesn’t cause grey hair. However, a constant release of “fight or flight” hormones like cortisol or adrenaline can certainly contribute to oxidative stress which may lead to a decrease in the pigmenting capacity of melanin and causing hair to turn grey.

Worrying about grey hair is more likely to cause other health issues than increase the speed of greying. Some experts claim that you have 10 years after finding your first grey hairs before going full grey or white haired. Why not try embracing the grey, coloring it, or try changing factors that may cause oxidative stress, rather than overthinking it.

Autoimmune Disorders and other Medical Conditions Linked to Premature Greying

Some autoimmune and genetic conditions have also been linked to premature greying. Thyroid disorder, anemia, vitiligo (which destroys the melanocyte cells), HIV infection and cystic fibrosis can be accompanied by the appearance of premature grey hairs. These causes if diagnosed by a doctor can often be treated for the reversal of early grey hairs.

Most of the functions of our body are dependent on the levels of thyroxine hormone produced by the thyroid gland. An underactive or overactive thyroid gland can affect the levels of melanin in the human body. If a teenage girl or boy is struggling with early onset of grey hair it may be worth seeing a doctor to see if this is linked to a thyroid disorder.

Premature greying has also been linked to a decrease in the bone mineral density of postmenopausal women. A study of 293 otherwise healthy postmenopausal women compared a group who had the majority of their hair turn grey by the age of 40 with a control group who did not have premature greying issues. Decreased bone density was noted in the women who had shown premature grey hair. (source)

Smoking and Environmental Damage to Premature Greying Hair

Smoking is a leading factor responsible for the premature greying of hair, especially in young adults. Smoking is a trigger for development of free radicals which can cause oxidative stress which makes the melanocytes produce fewer pigments resulting in grey hair.

Both smoking and chronic drug abuse have been linked with the early greying of hair. One study of young adults under 30 even found that smokers were two and a half times more likely to develop premature hair greying than non-smokers. (source) Yet another reason to give up, as well as being healthier and enjoying a longer life.

Pollution, UV light, inflammatory stress from scalp diseases and harsh chemicals can produce damaging reactive oxygen radicals that can in turn attack the pigment forming cells leading to premature greying. Some medicines and drugs can cause premature greying of the hair too, including but not limited to chloroquine, mephenesin and dixyrazine. If premature greying is a problem, a dermatologist or other physician will be able to advise you of alternative medications.

Can We Stop Premature Grey Hair?

It is definitely within our reach to be able to prevent some early greying of the hair. Following a healthy balanced diet, not smoking, exposing the hair to fewer pollutants and avoiding harsh chemicals can certainly reduce premature greying. Harsh chemicals found in some hair treatments like those which straighten can often damage the follicle receptors where pigment cells produce melanin to color the hair, and should be avoided.

A dermatologist will usually start by trying to find the cause of premature grey hair and may require tests to check for your levels of iron, folic acid, copper, zinc or vitamin B12. If there is a deficiency, usually supplements can reverse the premature greying. Underlying autoimmune disorders like a thyroid hormonal imbalance may require further treatment.

Unfortunately, if you show a genetic disposition to premature greying or a family history of chronic disease there is very little you can do to stop premature grey hairs. Some medications or herbal home remedies can slow the premature greying of your hair, but eventually it’s going to go grey, so George Clooney watch out, there’s another silver fox in town!

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