MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: Why do I have white hair in a young age?

Date: Wed Apr 19 20:58:59 2000
Posted By: Lyle Burgoon, Grad student, Pharmacology and Toxicology, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 954299121.Me

Thank you for your question.

The reason why your hair is going gray could be any amount of reasons. The hair fibers appear gray because they are lacking in pigment. Basically what has happened is that the hair follicle responsible for that hair fiber is no longer capable of coloring the hair that it secretes.

Hair is pigmented by the same mechanism that your skin is pigmented – through action of cells called melanocytes. Essentially hair is pigmented because these melanocytes travel to the follicle, and through various complex mechanisms that aren’t well understood, the hair (which is a protein) comes out with some color – in my case black (with a few of those grew hairs, too).

Why is your hair going gray? Well, the easy answer is that the melanocytes are either migrating away from the follicle, or they are inactive for some reason. Why would they inactivate? Any guess is a good guess here – this is still a bit controversial. But, I think that most scientists would agree that it has something to do with the DNA. People who go gray early (experiencing premature leukotrichia – leukotrichia means loss of pigment of the hair, or in other words, a condition where the hair is gray. “Leuko” means white; “trichia” is from the Greek meaning hair or tail) are most likely genetically predisposed.

Maybe I should explain that a little further, eh? Genetically predisposed means that you have the genetic make-up such that under the “right” set of circumstances, those genes will be activated. An example of a genetic predisposition would be certain kinds of cancers. In this example some people have certain genes that make it much more likely that they will develop a certain kind of cancer when they are placed in a certain situation. This means, a malnutrition state might trigger a certain kind of cancer. Or maybe a great deal of stress will cause some other phenotype.

So a genetic predisposition should be considered like potential energy in physics. If a book is sitting up on top of a shelf, it is said to have potential energy. The potential energy is the amount of energy produced by that book as it falls to the floor. The fact that it is stationary and not moving, or actually producing the energy, makes it “potential” and not kinetic energy. Once the book is moving, the energy produced is kinetic energy (energy of motion). A genetic predisposition is much the same – there’s potential for the phenotype encoded by that gene (or those genes if it’s part of a whole system of genes) to show up, but it’s not necessarily being shown/produced.

Back to the matter at hand – you were genetically predisposed to show gray hair. However, because something has happened, you are now showing gray hair. That event that happened to trigger this could be something that you could control, or it could be something beyond your control. In some people, going gray just happens, it happens at a certain time, and then it doesn’t proceed much beyond that.

Be that as it may, there’s nothing wrong with having gray hair. It’s just another thing that helps you be an individual. There are not any treatments that I know of, other than to dye your hair, that would make your hair less gray. Well, there are treatments, but they’re cost prohibitive, and I doubt they’ve been approved by the FDA yet.

However, you really should try to eat three meals a day if you can. Actually, it’s a little better to spread that out over 5 smaller meals if possible. Going through a quasi-starvation state is not necessarily good for the body. It’s a bit rougher on the body to go long stretches of time without eating. The body does strange things to compensate, so try to get back on a fairly normal schedule. And eat a nice healthy, balanced diet. I’m not saying that those things will stop the gray hair (it might, who knows!), but it certainly won’t hurt things any, and if anything, it might help out a bit!

Thanks again!

Lyle D. Burgoon
Graduate Assistant
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
College of Human Medicine
National Food Safety and Toxicology Center
Michigan State University

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