According to Harvard researchers, the answer is YES!
Does stress really turn your hair gray/white? “Marie Antoinette Syndrome” is a folk term for the rapid transition of hair color to white. This term got its origin from a legend that the fabled French Queen’s hair turned white the night before she faced the guillotine. Harvard researchers recently studied this phenomenon and published their findings in a Nature publication titled: “Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells.”
Mice also develop Marie Antoinette Syndrome in which their hair turns white prematurely due to stress. Harvard researcher Ya-Chieh Hsu studied a mouse model as a way to better understand what may be happening in humans. The initial hypothesis was that, under stress, the immune system attacks stem cells that form pigment in hair follicles. This was disproven since mice without a functional immune system still developed gray hairs under stress. Another hypothesis was that the stress hormone, cortisol, was directly or indirectly killing the pigment forming stem cells. This was also disproven since stress-induced graying still occurred even in mice that had their adrenal glands removed and thereby couldn’t produce cortisol.
The final hypothesis that was tested and ultimately turned out to supported by their experiments is that the activation of the sympathetic nervous system was responsible for this mouse phenotype. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” reflexes that can occur during brief, intense periods of stress. The researchers found that even transient activation of the sympathetic nervous system can deplete hair pigment forming (melanocyte) stem cells in mice, thereby inducing premature graying. While more work is needed to see whether this is applicable to humans, this research provides a scientific basis for the age-old observation of stress-induced hair graying.
Fear not, hair transplantation still works for people who have gray or white hair!