Why Hair Turns Gray

Woman with long gray hair
Many people want to know what causes gray hair and what the treatment options are. There are a number of different factors that can cause hair to turn gray and affect the rate at which it happens. Genetics are the primary factor. A genetic code in each individuals DNA determines how a person ages. This can mean that a person will turn 80 and still have their natural hair color or be 25 and have a head full of white hair. These are extreme examples and most people fall along the middle-aged range for gray hair.
Science behind gray hair is still a bit scarce. There are factors such as poor diet, stress, drug interactions, and medical conditions that can determine when a person gets gray hair. Some people will find that their hair will return to its normal color when these conditions are treated. However, for most of us, going gray is simply a natural progression of the body aging.
System Behind Going Gray
Our bodies are made of millions of cells that create all of the organs and systems. These perform all of the functions that allow us to grow and sustain our life. All of these cells are living and they age, reproduce and die. This happens in a cycle and each type of cell renews itself as determined by the DNA and the job that they perform within the body.
Skin cells create pigment. The cells of the skin are known as melanocytes and their job is to produce melanin. Melanin is what determines the color of our skin and how well we deal with the sun and UV radiation. These cells are also part of the hair follicles and their job is to grow hair that appears on our bodies.
Melanin that is produced by these cells is what determines our hair color. There are two different types of melanin found in hair. They are the brown/black eumelanin and the red/blonde pheomelanin. The balance and amounts of these two melanins create all of the shades of color of hair that are found around the world.
When we begin to age, our cells begin to break down. One explanation of how this works is to compare the body to copying a document and then proceeding to recopy the copy over and over again. Each copy gets a little less sharp and starts to degrade. Replication of cells is similar to this, with each time they reproduce, the cell becomes a little less sharp. After so many replications, the cells will break down and eventually cease to function.
When the cells or melanocytes in hair follicles begin this process, the pigment or color of the hair becomes lighter. When the cells cease to function, hair becomes gray. Hair follicles and cells in each follicle are independently operated. This is why you see individual strands of gray hair. Even if gray hair seems to be a cluster, these hairs may be separated by hundreds of follicles.
In theory, there are factors that seem to contribute to gray hair. These factors seem to cause the inhibition of melanocyte production and cause them to function poorly, resulting in an increased number of gray hairs. Some of these factors, such as chemo and malnutrition may cause damage to the cells and even death of the cells.
There are some cases where simply removing these factors or introducing a new factor that will boost cell growth can allow melanocytes to begin producing melanin regularly again. However, this is still in research stages and it will be many more years before there are any medical treatments available for gray hair.
I hope that this takes some of the mystique out of why hair turns gray. While this does not make gray hair any easier to deal with, it does help to understand the causes and processes that turn hair gray.
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