Scientific Proof: Why stress gives you grey hairs!

“All work and no play…” Words immortalised by Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘The Shining’

Last week it felt like I’d been hit by a mental sledge-hammer.I’d been working hard for weeks; every evening and weekend spent doing paperwork and assignments. Finally the truth of the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” became real to me: I suffer from epilepsy which can be triggered by tiredness and stress and my body had reached its limit.

The irony is that I was about to write a blog article about a research article that shows how relaxation (and meditation) can boost the immune system, and slow aging. Today’s blog explores how stress causes grey hairs, wrinkles, and worse. But giving time for your body to rest could very well make you appear younger and even live longer. I wish I’d learnt this sooner…

Getting old is all to do with our DNA. In a previous blog,  ‘The Secret of Eternal Youth’, I explained that our DNA has protective tips (like the plastic ends of shoelaces) called telomeres. Year by year, these genetic ‘telomeres’ get worn down: and when this happens, we show the signs of aging. I have often had silver-headed seniors tell me that a combination of ‘stress’ and ‘children’ gave them their crown of grey hairs! Although it sounds like a joke, new research has shown that this old adage has more than a modicum of truth to it; stress brings on the signs of aging by actually wearing down your body’s genetic defences: It destroys the precious telomeres.

Relaxation: The Solution to Stress!

Could a bit less stress have prevented Obama’s Grey Hair?
The research, published in the science journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, looked at the effect of relaxation and meditation on the health of our cells.

Volunteers were randomly split into two groups: one were sent on a three month relaxation retreat, the other group to carry on life as normal. The group that had been relaxing said they felt better: they felt more in control and had a greater sense of purpose in life. Afterwards, both groups also had blood samples taken: incredibly the cells of those who had been on the retreat seemed to have aged less!

The  telomeres in their blood cells showed one third less damage; simply by being on a relaxing retreat!

So if relaxation is key to keeping our physical bodies young and well, how can we do this? A three month course in meditation isn’t feasible for most of us; but mental health charity MIND has some helpful tips:

  • Take some time out alone to just let your body and mind relax
  • Try some regular exercise
  • Get good quality sleep
  • Make sure you take time to have fun
  • Eat regularly and opt for healthier choices

Doctor, Heal Thyself!

Regrettably I could have done with this advice before I reached my ‘burnout’. My GP insisted that I take some time away from work; she fears that continued stress and exhaustion would trigger an epileptic seizure. I begrudgingly accepted her diagnosis (doctors always make the worst patients)! I love teaching and the idea of not doing working does not rest easy with me. My GP is probably right though when she spoke of ‘complete exhaustion’; the past few days I have been sleeping over 12 hours a night. My body must be telling me something…

Read more:

Read MIND’s guide to managing stress:  

Jacobs, T.L., et al., Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010), doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010

About my personal story as a cancer survivor





6 responses to “Scientific Proof: Why stress gives you grey hairs!”

  1. Also do gardening and other activities that promote serotonin. Yoga is also helpful in reducing stress. Anything that slows down the telomere withering helps with quanitity but reducing stress is beneficial in improving the quality of life. Good article.

    • Very good point! Quantity & quality!
      I like gardening – especially digging and turning over soil. There’s something very therapeutic about doing something with your hands…
      Thanks mdsync!

  2. Researchers from Krishna Institute of Medical Sciences, India published a paper in which they investigated factors affecting quality of life in patients with epilepsy. They found that “depression, anxiety and the use of multiple antiepileptic drugs are strong predictors of poor quality of life in epileptic patients.” For the role of age, sex, and education, scientists said that ““age, sex and education did not correlate significantly with the quality of life”. The full study could be reached here

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