By Enyeribe Ejiogu
Just about anybody in Nigeria is familiar with Professor Wole Soyinka’s full head of white hair. It has long been his trademark just as Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s embroidered native cap with the broken shackles symbol is also the fashion signature of the All Progressives Congress leader. If he should send an aide to an event with just his cap, it would be taken that Asiwaju attended!
But Professor Soyinka did not turn all-round grey overnight. The process started when streaks of white began to appear in his imposing Afro hair long ago. As somebody with a unique intellectual personality, it all added to the aura of the Nobel laureate, distinguished poet and man of the arts.
Again, accomplished songster, Onyeka Onwenu, who has forever worn her hair short is one other Nigerian with a patch of grey that has given a touch of elegance that women some time ago tried to copy by simply bleaching a patch of hair.
Nonetheless, a good number of people get terrified when they look in the mirror and behold the “horrific” sight of strands of grey hair begin to appear on their head. Waking up one day and discovering grey hair when you haven’t even hit 30 is a nightmare for many. This feeling is driven by the belief that greying is a sign of old age or stark reminder that the person is clearly ageing. For people who would rather revel in eternal youth, they get petrified. No matter how the average feels about it, ageing is an immutable fact of life and a natural progression for a very human being. While some accept ageing wholeheartedly with the greying come with it, some others fight it by dyeing their hair to conceal the white strands.
Although greying is associated with age, but in several instances, early manifestation of greying is a clear indication of systemic problems that need to be identified and properly dealt with in good time. However, it must be noted that certain factors account for sudden greying.
Every hair strand has follicles at the root. These are specialized cells that produce the pigment called melanin, which gives hair its natural colour. As a person advances in age, the follicles produce less melanin. Though it is not fully understood by science yet, it is definitely known that genetics plays a role in accelerated greying.
It is known that Caucasians (Whites) greying in their mid-30s; Asians in their late 30s; Africans in the mid-40s. However, over half of people in all races have a significant amount of grey hair by the time they turn 50, according to Webmd.com
Premature greying has been found to be genetic. There are, however, catalysts that may quicken the alteration from one’s “normal” hair tone to one that conspicuously displays the natural aging process.
Below, are seven things you should know about early change of hair to grey.
1. Medical condition
In some situations, autoimmune reactions result in normal body cells being attacked by the body’s own immune system. In this regard, hair follicles get decimated. This affects their ability to produce melanin, the absence of which makes it possible for premature greying to occur. There are other medical causes, as well. For instance, says Webmd.com, “A vitamin B-12 deficiency or problems with the pituitary or thyroid gland can cause premature aging.”
These days, when lifestyles have changed and people are experiencing self-imposed dietary restrictions, such people may also be at a greater risk for premature greying. Individuals that take birth control pills, and those with gastrointestinal or digestive issues may also be at a higher risk for premature greying.
However, there is good news:
If thyroid health is treated or the problem affecting the pituitary gland resolved, the physical effects of premature aging (including greying of hair) can be reversed. This said, premature greying of the hair due to medical reasons is thought to be rare.
People who smoke a lot are predisposed to greying early. According to a dermatologist: “Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your skin and hair. You may not be able to see wrinkles on the scalp but it’s still affecting all the (hair) follicles.”
There is a proven correlation between going grey and smoking, according to studies. One such study found that smokers are two and a half times more likely to go grey early as compared to non-smokers. Smoking is also said to be related to baldness because the chemicals present in cigarette smoke damage hair and cause hair cells to break down, as stated by The New York Times in a report.
3. Chronic stress
While there is a bit of a debate on this, some research has uncovered a relationship between stress and grey hair. In a study conducted by cellular biologists at New York University – and published in the journal Nature Medicine – researchers observed the diminution of hair follicles via stem cell reduction in mice placed under stressful conditions.
Again, an abundance of research on the effects of stress and premature greying does not exist. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that there may indeed be a strong link. Nigerians would easily recall that when former Lagos State governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola first took office, he had relatively dark hair, but by the time he left office after eight years, his scalp had a nice carpet of grey hair. The same thing happened to former United States President Barack Obama, who assumed office with dark hair but finished his presidency with grey hair. Perhaps a result of the biting tension of searching for Osama Bin Laden, who was eventually found and executed by US Navy Seals. Though there is no research that explicitly states that stress causes premature greying, but stress hormones may have an effect on the melanin-producing cells which could lead to it. According to Dr Eidelmen, stress can cause you to shed hair faster, but it’s unlikely that only the dark ones fall out.
4. It is genetic
Going grey early is linked to one’s genes. If your parents and grandparents had premature greying, then you’re likely to experience it too. Dr Michael Eidelman, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine, says genetic constitution is also responsible for the progress, intensity and shade of the hair: white, silver or grey. If premature greying is not a trait that runs in a person’s family, it is recommended that the individual should visit a doctor to evaluate the health of the thyroid, vitamin levels, and to rule out anaemia, which is a deficiency of red bloods or hemoglobin in the blood.
5. Ethnicity and gender are also major factors
Ethnic or racial background can also explain why some people go grey early. Research shows that Asians start getting grey hair in their late 30’s, Caucasians in mid 30’s and African Americans in their 40’s. Your gender also plays a role – men start greying around the age of 30 whereas women start around 35.
6. Smoking ups your chances of getting grey hair
There is a proven correlation between going grey and smoking, according to studies. One such study found that smokers are two and a half times more likely to go grey early as compared to non-smokers. Smoking is also said to be related to baldness because the chemicals present in cigarette smoke damage hair and cause hair cells to break down, as stated by The New York Times.
7. Grey hair is not a sign of a shorter life expectancy
Many people believe that if you develop grey hair early in life, you are likely to have a shorter life span, but that’s not true. There is no evidence to suggest any correlation between greying of hair and life expectancy. The proof is Prof Soyinka, who developed grey hair long time ago and is now enjoying a happy old age.
8. You can’t reverse it
Once a person goes grey, you can’t reverse the process or prevent it through creams or vitamins, according to scientific evidence. However, if the greying was because of a medical condition, then it might be resolved by curing the condition. Though grey hair cannot be reversed, it can be hidden by dyeing it. However, be careful because too much chemical colouring can also damage your hair. Therefore, you should use a moisturising shampoo and conditioner. The texture of your hair changes once it starts greying. To take care of coarse, dry and brittle hair, dermatologists recommend using moisture rich shampoo and conditioner and staying hydrated. You should also avoid shampooing every day.