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Can a shock turn your hair grey overnight?

When tragedy strikes, it can leave its victims suffering a sudden change in hair tone – if folk tales are to be believed. Our expert Daniel Nettle teases out the truth from the myth.

Society

A near-death experience, losing a loved one, or spending a terrifying night in a haunted house – any one of these might leave you waking up with a head of grey hair, according to popular myth. Even stranger, the belief that shock can turn our hair grey has roots in reality. “It can, not overnight, but over weeks or months,” says Daniel Nettle. “The body is undoubtedly affected by stress.” Nettle, a professor of behaviour science at Newcastle University, prefers to use the term ‘adversity’ over the vaguely-defined ‘stress’. In the short term, adversity increases your heart rate, your breathing, and activates your immune system to cope with the threat. “But severe and long-term adversity can make you more likely to get sick,” says Nettle. “The immune system is primed in the short term, but dysregulated in long term.” In the EU-funded research project COMSTAR, Nettle investigated how early life adversity affected starlings, fast-growing songbirds which go from hatchling to adult in just 14 days. “We were able to manipulate subtle things like making their food supply unpredictable, or creating more competition in the nest from broodmates,” Nettle explains. The team found that birds experiencing adversity had shorter telomeres – a sign of physiological aging, as well as impacts on inflammation and behaviour. Nettle adds that birds which experienced adversity were less well adapted to cope with future threats: “Once you build the house, you can’t rebuild the basement”.

A stress-free life

Measuring the impact of sudden, severe shocks is difficult, as the effects of major traumas tend to linger for a long time. But those experiencing hardship seem to age – including turning grey – faster than others. “People who experience poverty or food insecurity get sick younger and die younger,” says Nettle. Experiments show that these people also look older than their true age. The ability to measure this physiological age would be a useful prognostic, says Nettle, as it would allow us to more accurately predict who is at risk of age-related diseases. Sadly there is no escaping some level of adversity, and therefore ageing and the grey hair it entails. “It’s an attractive idea, but I don’t think you can flee to a monastery and live forever,” says Nettle. “Living itself is stressful, there are toxins, metabolic stress, the using up of bodily reserves. But living a healthy life is a good idea – sleep well, eat well, and try not to be poor.” Click here to find out more about Daniel Nettle’s research: Exploring the impact of early-life adversity on starlings.

Keywords

COMSTAR, Nettle, stress, grey, hair, shock, adversity, starlings