Mr. Obama has handled many difficult issues with aplomb, but is all this stress causing him to go gray?
A New York Times article highlighted (pun intended) Mr. Obama’s overnight graying. It is widely believed that stress causes you to go gray prematurely. In fact, it does not.
Hair turns gray because the pigment cells stop making pigment. The color in your hair is made by melanocytes (the same cell responsible for the deadly skin cancer, melanoma). We aren’t sure what makes the melanocytes stop making pigment.
Every hair on your body goes through three phases: 1. a growing phase, 2. a resting phase, and 3. a falling out phase. The longer your growing phase, the longer your hair will grow. Women have longer growing phases than men, which is why women can grow hair that is several feet long, but men cannot.
It might be that as we age, shortened stages of hair growth lead to less pigment. When only a little pigment is produced, we have gray hair. When no pigment is produced, we have white hair, which can appear faintly blue (hence the term blue-haired ladies).
Another factor in graying hair is hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is a natural oxidant; we produce an enzyme called catalase that breaks down hydrogen peroxide turning it into water and oxygen. As catalase function decreases, the levels of hydrogen peroxide increase. High levels of hydrogen peroxide block the production of pigment, leading to gray hair.
Most men and women start getting gray hairs in their 30’s and 40’s. How much gray hair you have depends on your race (white people gray faster than Asians or blacks) and your genetics (some people turn gray in their 20’s). On average, half of people aged 50 are at least 50% gray.
So how do I explain how Mr. Obama went gray in less than 100 days? Perhaps it’s the same reason why Paul McCartney at nearly 67 years old does not have a gray hair on his head: it’s a natural color, but it ain’t natural. Maybe Mr. Obama’s new gray hair is job stress after all — now that he is president he has had time for a cut but not a color.
Photos: Paul McCartney John Packer I Blank Slate Photography. President Obama by Jurvetson (flickr)