Premature Gray Hair? Check Your Nutrition

Sunday, March 19, 2017
By: Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

The shriek coming out of the bathroom with the utterance of defeat “I have gray hair” may send you to the local salon for hair coloring solutions. Gray hair is expected to come with age and advanced years, but some individuals experience gray hair much earlier in adulthood. Many a college student has found their first gray hair after a tough semester. Much to their horror, even the occasional high school student may find gray hair.

Development of premature gray hair is a real phenomenon. It’s not just about hair color and the implications of getting old. It is a reflection that something else is going on in your system. It is often said that stress and family genetics make hair go gray. As the mystery of early gray hair development is teased apart, researchers find that genetics is not the only factor in its early development. Oxidative stress and nutrient deficiencies also play a key role in early onset gray hair.

[Jump to: Nutritional Options]

What is Melanin?

Melanin is the pigment that gives human hair, skin, and eyes and even internal organs their color. In addition to pigmentation of tissues, melanin has many other benefits and functions. Melanin is a known antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, radio-protective, liver and gastrointestinal protective, and a blood sugar lowering agent. Melanin is different than the sleep hormone and antioxidant melatonin.

Melanin is Impaired with Oxidative Stress

Melanin provides different hues of color pigmentation to hair follicles.  In normal aging, we see melanin reduction occur over the course of several decades. In premature graying, it is seen in teenagers, twenties and thirties. In early gray hair onset, high levels of oxidative stress from reactive oxygen species (ROS) and hydroxyl radicals, like hydrogen peroxide, have been found to adversely impact the cells that produce melanin, called melanocytes. On a cellular level, ROS and other free radicals cause progressive stress to cellular structures involved with melanin production and transportation. If there is a lack of antioxidants to quench the ROS, the melanin forming cells fail to function and the hair shaft becomes void of pigment. Premature gray hair is essentially an accelerated aging process to the hair follicles and melanin.

Nutrients Required for Melanin Production

Melanin is derived from the amino acid tyrosine. In addition to tyrosine, several other nutrients are needed to make melanin. Iron, copper, zinc, vitamin B12, and the amino acids methionine and cysteine are essential and a lack of even one of these nutrients impairs melanin production. For example, a recent study of Indian patients 25 years of age and younger demonstrated that premature gray hair was associated with low levels of serum ferritin, vitamin B12, and low HDL-cholesterol. Another recent study demonstrated that 20 year olds and younger with premature gray hair had low copper, zinc, and iron.

Risk Factors and Associated Health Concerns

Several different variables increase the risks for premature gray hair. These include smoking, obesity, family history, alcohol, and emotional stress. Smokers are 2.5 times more likely to develop premature gray hair than non-smokers. 

Premature gray hair is more than just a “little snow on the rooftop”. Researchers have shown that premature gray hair may indicate early concerns with autoimmune disorders, heart disease and osteoporosis. Autoimmune disorders like hyper- and hypo-thyroid disease, vitiligo (a skin pigmentation disorder) and pernicious anemia, Addison’s disease/adrenal insufficiency, premature hypogonadism, and Werner’s Syndrome are all linked with premature gray hair.

Recent findings in the journal Internal Medicine found that people with premature gray hair may be at increased risk of heart disease. Scientists evaluated over 200 patients who had premature gray hair and no history of cardiovascular disease. They looked at numerous variables and independent risk factors, which included carotid artery intima-media thickness (CIMT) measurements. CIMT is an independent test for coronary artery disease that measures the thickness of the inner two layers of the carotid artery. Thickening of the intima-media occurs before symptoms of atherosclerosis. In this study, it was found that premature gray hair was related to increased CIMT. Scientists suggested further investigation was needed to further confirm this relationship.

More than two decades ago, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism reported that individuals with premature gray hair in their teens and twenties had a stronger family history of osteoporosis. Study participants with premature gray hair were 4.4 times more likely to have osteopenia compared to the other participants. They suggested the risk was genetic or related to bone turnover. The jury is still out if we can definitively link premature gray hair in younger adults with bone density concerns. However, we do know that bone loss is related to oxidative stress, just like premature gray hair. Both are clues that healthier changes may need to occur.

Be advised that proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) antacid medication also affects melanin. Current literature shows that PPIs like Prilosec may be used to whiten skin or reduce hyperpigmentation, as these drugs block melanin production in the skin. PPIs affect melanin via gene pathways, copper and tyrosine function. The literature focuses specifically on the effects pertaining to skin and melanin. Common PPIs do not list gray hair as a side effect, but given the impact on skin melanocytes, it does make one wonder if there is a correlation to gray hair onset or increase.

Early development of gray hair, apart from genetics, suggests that there may be insufficient nutrients or something else is going on. The fact that melanin has such a diverse role in the body as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, radio-protective, liver and gastrointestinal protective, and blood sugar lowering agent, and its loss is linked with gray hair, makes one wonder if premature gray hair is an early sign of lower melanin levels elsewhere in the body.  This is especially concerning as we see premature gray hair and insufficient melanin linked with autoimmune disorders, atherosclerosis and increased CIMT thickness.

The best nutritional support is to ensure adequate iron, zinc, copper, vitamin B12, and protein. In addition to vitamin B12, several other B vitamins are needed to prevent hair loss, breakage, and damage. Iron and zinc are common deficiencies worldwide. Check your serum ferritin levels to evaluate iron stores and early signs of anemia. Zinc insufficiency is especially common in youth and young adults, as it is needed for growth. White spots on the nails, body odor, chronic allergies and infections, thyroid and adrenal stress may be due to insufficient zinc. Copper is essential for hair pigmentation and must be balanced with zinc in the body. If your gray hair developed after a period of life stress, you may need to buffer oxidative stress effects with B vitamins, magnesium, and plant-based antioxidants. If you have recently uttered those words “I have gray hair” and it is not due to normal aging, it may be time to give your hair a nutritional makeover. 

Nutritional Options

B vitamins – When it comes to basic support for keeping hair healthy, B vitamins are at the forefront. Lack of vitamin B12 has been linked with premature gray hair, but the luster, growth, and strength of the hair follicle and shaft and scalp need B vitamins too. B vitamins are woefully lacking in the diet of many. Life stress and oxidative stress contribute to this insufficiency.

Zinc – Several of the risk factors listed above, i.e. smoking, alcohol, and emotional stress deplete zinc and B vitamins too. Zinc is needed for our body especially skin, hair, and nails. If you have white spots on the nails and premature gray/white hair, zinc needs may be substantial. Consider zinc intake of 25-75 mg for women and 50-100 mg for men. Zinc works together with copper. Make sure an 8:1 or 10:1 ratio of zinc:copper is used for long term support.

Iron – Teenagers, athletes, young mothers, and those with limited diets may not get enough iron in their diet. Insufficient iron is one reason for early gray hair. If your serum ferritin level is below 50, consider iron supplementation.

Protein – Adequate protein is needed to make hair and keep our structure healthy. The amino acids tyrosine, cysteine, and methionine are specifically required for melanin production. Many often do better with overall health when their protein consumption is at least 60-80 grams per day. Higher amounts may be needed with stress, athletes, vegan diet, illness recovery, or obesity.

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