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Beware the Undertoad!
can you go gray overnight?
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Last week’s post about turning gray coincided with a couple of interesting reader questions on the subject. So I’ll follow up in a minute. But first—isn’t there always a “but first” in these posts?—a moment about a not-unrelated topic.
Existential dread! 😱
If you don’t know what that is, I congratulate you. I didn’t either—till around age five, when I discovered my tricycle and I were tooling around on what amounted to a rock spinning helplessly through space. I didn’t need any greater understanding of the cosmos to provoke the free-wheeling anxiety I’m still, 67 years later, familiar with.
Which reminds me of a conversation I had last week with my friend L about waking up in the middle of the night with that dread devil sitting in the middle of my chest. I was trying to describe it—a feeling of…nothingness?—when L said, “Right. And not knowing what comes next.” (These are the kinds of light-hearted conversations we have on our walks.) Well, shit, I thought, that’s it. Not knowing what comes next…uncertainty…finally, the looming transition. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön reminds us, “Life is like stepping into a boat that’s about to sail out to sea and sink.”
And so, dear readers, if getting Botox or filler or surgery—or covering your gray—makes you feel better about that, please, be my guest. Whatever gets you through the night! Just be aware that though your deck chair may be in a more agreeable position, your destination hasn’t changed. So you might behave accordingly.
I wonder if a reader was having a similar dread-related moment when she emailed her question.
Q: Is it possible to turn gray practically overnight?
A: You know how the older you get, the more quickly time seems to pass? My thought was that even though it may take several years for your hair to turn gray, it can seem like it happened overnight. Dermatologist and hair wizard Hadley King confirmed that an actual overnight transformation is highly unlikely.
To begin at the root of the issue: “Hair follicles contain melanocytes, cells that produce pigment called melanin,” she explained. “As we age, melanin production decreases, so hair, losing pigment, turns gray and eventually white.”
The age at which these changes occur is largely determined by genetics, King said. But the rate of melanin production slowdown and consequent graying can be accelerated by factors like smoking, anemia, poor nutrition, low levels of B vitamins, or an untreated thyroid condition.
What about stress? Trauma? A sudden catapult into the black hole of existential dread?
“Stress hormones cannot cause hair to turn gray overnight,” said King. Though they may be a factor in the survival and/or activity of the melanocyte population, no clear link has been well-established between stress and gray hair. One theory is that stress hormones could cause inflammation that drives the production of free radicals; it’s possible these free radicals could influence melanin production. But we need more data, said King. There is a mouse study supporting the idea that compromised antioxidative activities in graying hair roots contributes to the destruction of hair follicle melanocytes.
But if you’re thinking it’s a fine idea to counter compromised antioxidative activity with antioxidant supplements, King wants you to think again. “Studies about humans taking high doses of oral antioxidant supplements often end in increased morbidity and mortality, presumably because our bodies benefit in some ways from free radicals—our immune systems need free radicals to help kill cancer cells, for example,” she said. So be cautious about translating theoretical benefits into taking unproven supplements.
Which brings me to our second reader’s curiosity.
Q: I spent a wad on Arey supplements. They promise to stave off my graying dark brown hair, which is my lifeblood. Watching my hair lose its will to produce pigment has me feeling like a lech (when I flirt with servers, for example). What do I need to know about the products I am putting into my body?
A: Are you saying people with gray hair shouldn’t flirt with servers? There are a few silver foxes among us who might take issue with your position.
As for the Arey supplements, King is familiar with them and points out that there isn’t a whole lot of data to support their claims about slowing down the graying process. However, one of the ingredients in their products, palmitoyl tetrapeptide 20 amide, has been shown in small studies to preserve the function of follicular melanocytes and promote hair pigmentation (a.k.a. slowing the loss of melanin).
Still, there are two issues that put me off: I think you must continue to take the supplements for them to work, so you’re basically on a never-ending subscription; and, as is the case with most magical products or devices, the less they have to do, the better they work.
Once again, we’re talking about rearranging deck chairs. If the idea of staving off gray helps you better enjoy the view, why not? And while you’re feeling optimistic, you might like this study, which not only supports the idea that stress might encourage graying, but also that graying can be reversed…kind of. Another, more recent study also seems to show promise about reversing gray. Personally, I thought the best news about the first study was that the researchers plucked the hairs they needed from “willing participants.” Do you reckon the rodents were treated as kindly?
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A Moment of Personal Horn-Blowing
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HNTFUYF, a Payola-Free Zone
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Val Asks You
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