What causes hair to turn grayWhat causes hair to turn gray

What Causes Hair to Turn Gray?

 May 16, 2022

By  Juli Kramer

What causes hair to gray? You might hear the frequent lament, “I’m going to go gray early. My mom/dad had gray hair when they were young.” It’s taken as an inevitable fact of life.

Eventually, everyone will gray. This fact has been researched and demonstrated to occur across all regions of the globe.

While it's a hot new trend to dye your hair "granny gray"...

What causes hair to turn gray

...turning gray at a young age is a sign of something out of balance in your body.

The explanation of what causes hair to turn gray varies depending on which medical model you understand.

What Causes Hair to Turn Gray? The Chinese Medicine Perspective

This article explains the Chinese and Asian medicine perspectives on what causes hair to turn gray. More specifically, you will understand why some people experience premature graying from this framework.

The good news is that you have the power to make lifestyle choices that prevent, slow, and/or reverse gray hair.

It's Part What You're Born with and Part Your Life Experiences and Choices

According to Jason Chong, a registered acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist, and educator, what causes hair to turn gray is related to the Kidney organ system.

Chong writes that, “This system is responsible for housing what is know as our Jing essence. As we draw on this during aging, our Kidney reserves become weaker which results in the graying of hair as the ability to nourish and color the hair diminishes.”

To explain why some children and young adults might get gray hair before their Jing essence is depleted, Chong explains the role of fright and shock.

What causes hair to turn gray

We're not talking the Bride of Frankenstein kind of shock. Chong describes something much more familiar and common.

He shares a story from his childhood to illustrate the point.

“Personally, I experienced the trauma of my parents separating when young, and around the same time developed a small patch of gray hair atop my head. As I reflect on this, I can see that the shock of this trauma affected my Kidney energy, manifesting in premature graying. Needless to say, as I have aged, the pace of graying has also accelerated rapidly since my 30th birthday.”

Also, genetics could be a factor in what causes hair to turn gray, Chong continues. He relates that his biological father also grayed early, which meant his inherited Jing essence might have been weak to begin with. The shock was a trigger that further weakened this finite store of energy.

Lifestyle and Diet

Doctor of Chinese Medicine, Dana Leigh Lyons, agrees with Chong. She says that yes, you are born with “pre-Heaven” resources from your parents and ancestors. These resources are the Jing essence Chong mentioned.

Lyons further states that, “What we do and what happens to us after birth also plays a pivotal role…This is akin to modern-day understandings of epigenetics, which ancient Chinese medicine doctors understood all along.”

Knowing your body constitution is one way to know more about your epigenetics. Take the body constitution quiz to discover more about your body.

To illustrate lifestyle choices that contribute to graying or accelerated graying, Lyons lists “post-Heaven” factors. Examples include:

  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Heavy blood loss (including heavy periods)
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Overwork mentally
  • Overstrain physically
  • Over-sex (especially for biological males)
  • Difficult pregnancies/post-partum or multi-parity without sufficient recovery
Earth element personality

What causes hair to turn gray?
Stress and anxiety are one factor.

Dr. Suzanna Wong, a Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine, details a particular post-natal nutritional deficiency factor that contributes to graying hair. She discusses the role of Vitamin D deficiency.

Wong writes that, “Gray hair can actually be caused by a deficiency in Vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a role in the hair follicle's production of melanin. When Vitamin D levels are low, or a person becomes deficient in the vitamin the production of melanin is affected, and the person’s hair starts to gray. 

Unfortunately, around 50% of the population is deficient in Vitamin D – which means that these people are more at risk of premature graying of hair."

When asked to connect this particular deficiency to Chinese medicine principles, Wong says, “Chinese medicine links gray hair to weak Kidneys, which leads to loss in bone strength, tooth loss, issues with your muscles and gray hair. 

The same symptoms connect with western research around Vitamin D, and the role it plays. For example, Western medicine links vitamin D deficiency to soft bones, tooth loss, issues with muscles (weakness for older people in particular) and gray hair.”

Strengthen your Kidneys

Food and Lifestyle Remedies to Prevent and Treat Gray Hair

In addition to addressing a Vitamin D deficiency, when answering what causes hair to turn gray, Chinese medicine has numerous helpful remedies. These remedies strengthen the Kidneys. As a result, hair will reflect Kidney system health and look darker.

Lyons shares several helpful remedies.

  • A nutrient-dense diet (organ meats and bone broth are excellent here, as are walnuts if a person is not sensitive to nuts; also, black sesame seeds or oil)
  • He Shou Wu (aka, Fo Ti) - a Chinese Medicine herb used for graying hair for thousands of years!
  • Herbal formulas that address any underlying deficiencies (often Blood and Kidney Essence deficiencies are involved here)
  • Excellent sleep hygiene 
  • Sufficient rest and recovery after physically or mentally taxing activities, sex, and childbirth
  • Stress relieving activities, such as walking, tai qi, qi gong, yoga, meditation, breathwork

Qigong is a wonderful way to reduce stress.

Furthermore, Dr. Zhang Yifang, author of Your Guide to Holistic Beauty, shares that “eating a lot of black sesame seeds, walnuts, and supplementing with some fo-ti root can be very helpful for growing nice strong hair.”

More importantly, she states that the above food recommendations are “good for the blood and can support the mental and physical needs of the body so that there is enough blood left over for beautiful hair.”

Additional dietary recommendations from Zhang include:

  • Fo-Ti herbal remedy (consult with your Chinese medicine practitioner) (Also mentioned by Lyons)
  • Fresh and dried mulberries to nourish yin and increase blood
  • Wood ear mushrooms to strengthen qi and nourish blood
  • Walnuts and black sesame seeds (One of Lyons' favorites as well)

Two additional lifestyle recommendations come from the author of Methods of Traditional Chinese Medicine Healthcare, Zeng Qingnan.

Zeng details exercises and massage methods that prevent and reverse whitening of the hair. You can watch a series of videos of these exercises to help you get started.

Combing with your fingers, as in the video, or with a high quality wood comb, further stimulates blood flow to the scalp. People have used this method to prevent and treat gray hair for thousands of years. Whether turning gray or not, feeling good about how you look will keep you young and vibrant.

Summary of What Causes Hair to Turn Gray?

In summary, yes, you might not have the strongest Kidney Jing essence from birth. In other words, you might have weak genetic material. That just means you need to make lifestyle choices that preserve this vital energy.

Even more, if you have suffered a shock or severe strain when young, you need to give yourself a little extra TLC. In this situation, finding a trained Chinese medicine doctor and acupuncturist can give you a jump start to healing.

Juli Kramer

Dr. Juli Kramer is a certified qigong instructor. She also holds a diploma in Chinese Medicine Nutritional Therapy and multiple certificates in Chinese medicine. As a qigong and meditation teacher, Dr. Kramer understands the important role movement and meditation have on developing a healthy body and mind. Juli also has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Counseling Psychology.

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