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Tens of millions of people reach for their hair care products at the first sign of gray hair. But there may be a way to reverse graying hair from the inside out--that doesn't necessarily require you to buy any special products.

I remember my first gray hair like it was yesterday, although it wasn't yesterday. It got my first gray hair in 1992. Now I have to look hard to find a hair that isn't gray. But if what I'm reading in the scientific literature is correct, I may be able to turn my hair, at least what is left of it, back to its natural color by dietary changes.

I'll let you know in the comments section below if it works. You can try it, too.

What causes gray hair?

Scientists believe that senile hair graying, as the process is called, results from changes to enzymes in the hair follicle caused by naturally generated hydrogen peroxide. This is the same chemical that is used to bleach hair, only generated by the body itself due to free radical stress.

Hydrogen peroxide stops the production of the pigment called melanin, the same pigment that gives us our skin color. It does this by chemically changing the amino acid methionine so that an enzyme called tyrosinase cannot assist in the process of making the natural hair coloring pigments. Some people have a genetic variation that causes melanin to make pigments that cause the hair to look blue, instead of gray, in the presence of the chemically altered amino acid.

Graying hair isn't just due to age.

Some people's hair turns gray gradually, but sometimes the hair turns gray almost overnight. Typically there has been some kind of extreme stress on the body that disrupts the production of antioxidants that protects the hair (and other parts of the body) against free radicals.

Hair turns gray from the root up.

The biochemical process that causes hair to turn gray takes place during the "anagen" stage of hair production, inside the follicle, before the hair emerges from the skin. If you can't dye the "roots," you will never completely conceal gray hair.

But maybe you won't have to dye your hair at all if you make certain dietary changes.

L-methionine prevents formation of the enzyme-blocker that causes gray hair.

Scientific studies show that the problem that results in the blocking of the hair-color enzyme tyrosinase is a deficiency of the amino acid L-methionine in its needed form. One solution seems to be to provide more of the nutrients the body needs to make the protective enzyme catalase, and another solution seems to be to provide more L-methionine, either directly to the scalp in an amino acid shampoo, or through the diet.

The enzyme catalase is supported by iron. If you are iron-deficient, eating more iron-rich foods will help stop graying of your hair. Simply cooking in cast iron pots and pans provides enough iron for maintaining healthy iron levels.

Don't start taking iron supplements (which can have a variety of side effects) unless you have had a blood test that shows you have low ferritin levels.

L-methionine is particularly abundant in egg whites, sesame seeds, beefsteak, white meat chicken, whole milk, buttermilk, lamb, and spirulina, which actually contains more L-methionine per serving than meat. Eat these foods, but don't rub them on your hair.

But at least as important as the right diet is one simple rule of haircare: If you don't want your hair to gray prematurely, never, ever bleach your hair. Bleaching hair breaks down the all the pigments except gray and blue. Drying the hair under high heat (without a diffuser on your blow dryer) and using detergent shampoos also break down your hair to reveal gray.

No diet and no supplement will change the color of hair that is already gray.

However, if you can reestablish healthy antioxidant levels in the skin, as your hair gradually keeps coming back in, it will come back fuller and closer to its original color. If you don't find your gray hair dignified, and you can't wait to change it, there is always hair dye.

  • Wiesche ES, Körner A, Schäfer K, Wortmann FJ. Prevention of hair surface aging. J Cosmet Sci. 2011 Mar-Apr.62(2):237-49.
  • Wood JM, Decker H, Hartmann H, Chavan B, Rokos H, Spencer JD, Hasse S, Thornton MJ, Shalbaf M, Paus R, Schallreuter KU. Senile hair graying: H2O2-mediated oxidative stress affects human hair color by blunting methionine sulfoxide repair. FASEB J. 2009 Jul.23(7):2065-75. doi: 10.1096/fj.08-125435. Epub 2009 Feb 23.
  • Photo courtesy of Pat Castaldo by Flickr :