man with grey hair next to children
health,  midlife,  parenting,  Science

Can children turn your hair grey?

In short, the answer is yes. Today, I had a hair cut and although it’s been a little while since I sat in the barber’s chair (or, rather, one of our kitchen chairs as my wife is a self taught scissors whizz), the result of her handiwork with the clippers left me shocked to the core.

The follicles falling from my head were greyer than I have ever seen them before. Indeed, within minutes I had a lap full of enough hair to make a convincing wig for a 90-year-old. It was like staring at the fallout from Father Christmas’s annual beard trim. I was not expecting it and, as I sat with my hair in my hands, I contemplated what must be to blame for my aging barnet.

Of course, turning grey is part of growing older, but I had no idea that it could happen as quickly as it apparently is. My early forties were blessed with next to no grey hair, but it appears that turning 46 has triggered the grey genes to kick into overdrive, like some kind of follicle sleeper cell that has been biding it’s time, waiting to strike.

But is it purely genetics, or are environmental factors in any way to blame? And, by environmental factors, I mean my children.

The science behind grey hair

Turning to Dr Google, it was little surprise to discover that stress can turn your hair grey. Indeed, stress is a natural response to challenging or threatening situations. It can help us cope with emergencies, but it can also have negative effects on our health, wellbeing and hair.

One of the effects of stress is that it activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” response, which helps us to flee at the sight of members of the school PTA looking for summer fair volunteers. This system releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body for action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.

But as well as helping us to flee danger, these same hormones affect the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives hair and skin their color. These cells are called melanocytes, and it is these traitors that run for the hills when we are stressed, meaning that new hairs grow out without pigment, appearing grey or white.

This process was demonstrated by a team of researchers from Harvard University and other institutions, who conducted experiments on mice exposed to different types of stress.

Now, I imagine the kind of stress the research team submitted the poor mice to didn’t involve testing the rodents’ ability to manage their children’s screen time and incessant demands for food, but the results nevertheless proved their point. Stress turns hair grey.

Reflecting on the last few years, all this begins to make sense. Being diagnosed and overcoming cancer, while also parenting two growing, hormone-filled, boundary-pushing young people, working full-time and living through a pandemic, isn’t exactly the perfect recipe for a stress free life.

However, far from being stressed by the fact that I am now heading towards Just For Men territory, I actually think my greying hair is a badge of honour, and of survivorship.

I would certainly much rather have a head of silver hair, than be pushing up daisies or living without the wonderful chaos of life as a modern day dad. So, for me, each grey hair is like a battle scar, an ever present reminder that I’ve survived all the stresses that have come my way over recent years.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not embracing stress. Indeed, if there’s anything I can do to stop my teenage children from spending so long on screens, or get them to brush their teeth without 500 daily reminders, I’ll take it.

Managing stress

Alas though, I fear that stress is part and parcel of life as a parent, so the key to a healthy head of hair, as well as to fending off other stress-related health issues – including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and depression – is to find effective ways to manage the stress in your life. And the advice on this front is pretty universal:

  • Identify your stressors. The first step to coping with stress is to identify what is causing you stress. Once you know what your stressors are, you can start to develop strategies for dealing with them. In the case of your children, identifying your stressors might not be that much of a challenge!
  • Take breaks. When you are feeling stressed, it is important to take breaks from whatever is causing you stress. Get up and move around, or take a few minutes to relax and clear your head. Again, when it comes to the kids, walking away from arguements rather than diving headfirst into them can be the best way to bring stress levels down for everyone.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress. It releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. Exercising with your children, meanwhile, gets them away from screens and, I have found, transforms them from argumentative rage machines to talkative, energised, enthusiastic and happy people. I love it.
  • Get enough sleep. When you are sleep-deprived, you are more likely to feel stressed. Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet can help to improve your mood and energy levels, both of which can help you to cope with stress. Swapping biscuits, cake and chocolate for fruit and nuts is hard, especially when your whole family has a sweet tooth, but it can pay dividends in the end.
  • Learn relaxation techniques. There are a number of relaxation techniques that can help to reduce stress, such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga. Find a technique that works for you and practice it regularly. Not, perhaps, something that a lot of us are open to trying, but what harm is there in giving these things a go?
  • Talk to someone. If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, talking to someone who can help. Talk to a friend, family member, therapist, charity or anyone else you trust. And talk to your children. Resist the impulse to shout at them when they do something stupid or insensitive and try to talk it through with them, however crazy that might seem.

As for turning grey, I say embrace it and go with it. Opting to dye your hair is a little like choosing to have plastic surgery, it might sound like a good idea and the promise might be eternal youth, but in reality absolutely everyone can tell. Dyed hair on middle-aged men is also surely one ball ache too far. Who can really be bothered with the hassle and continued expense?

Had it not been for recent events, I would have said we should all take the Phillip Schofield approach and embrace our silver fox status, but I fear he may no longer be the poster boy for grey-haired middle-aged men that he once was. Instead, let’s all go Clooney!

Read next: Time to talk about men’s mental health

One Comment

  • Molly | Transatlantic Notes

    My husband’s hair has turned very grey and white over the last few years and I love it; it looks great but he was definitely shocked at how it happened (seemingly without him noticing). He has had a lot of stress in the last few years so that may have contributed to it’s arrival. He’s getting used to it!

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