I was in the hairstylist chair a couple of weeks ago getting my hair colored (washing that damn gray right out!), and I came across this little factoid: worrying turns your hair gray. WTF? Turns out that, according to a recent New York University study, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline drive melanocyte cells—the ones that control hair color—out of hair follicles causing strands to turn gray or white.

You know, biology has made our bodies quite adept at dealing with high-anxiety situations through the “fight-or-flight” mechanism. Once cortisol kicks in, a chemical cascade of events follows, helping us to tackle whatever challenge is being thrown at us… like a tight deadline, screaming children, ugly traffic jams, being late, etc. But while this process can be helpful physiologically and mentally (we tend to be quicker on our feet because of it), it can also wreak havoc on our looks.

I did a little research on the topic, and wanted to share what I found in terms of the way chronic stress can age you, and what you can do to put a stop to it.

Your Hair

Shedding: There’s nothing like a good hair day, right? Good hair can make your whole day. Bad hair can ruin it. Unfortunately, good hair is not essential to your good health. When stress levels cause you to eat poorly or lose weight, your body directs all of its energy (as it should) into making sure your vital organs are functioning properly. It doesn’t waste precious resources on your hair. As a result, follicles in the growing stage go immediately into the resting and shedding phase, a condition called telogen effluvium. If, instead of shedding the normal 100 strands a day you’re shedding more like 300–meaning handfuls fall into the sink when you’re brushing–see your doctor.

If the hair loss is diet-related, your doctor may start by testing your levels of B12, zinc, iron, and the protein ferritin—all nutrients that are crucial to hair growth—and suggest that you take supplements if you have deficiencies. Your doctor may also suggest stress-management techniques if diet alone isn’t what’s causing the issue. Once you address the stress (can I get an Ohm, here?), the condition should reverse itself in six to 10 months.

Gray hair: Whether it’s just a few creeping in on you or, if you’re like me, a full head of them. Unfortunately, I had a lot of stress when I was younger and I started graying early. Wish I knew then what I know now! As you can see by the changes in President Obama’s hair since he took office in THE most stressful job there is, grays happen rather quickly. In the same study I mentioned above, researchers at New York University School of Medicine found that all three kinds of stress–physical, mental and emotional–can leave hair cells without pigment, turning it gray.

There is currently no known way to reverse graying, but at least we have great options to color over it! My hairstylist is a genius at it.

Your Nails

Ragged cuticles and tips: Being stressed out doesn’t actually directly affect the strength or thickness of your nails beds, but nutrient, vitamin and mineral deficiencies do. Stress can change your eating patterns, leaving you short on the good stuff, and it can also cause you to bite or pick at your cuticles to comfort yourself. Picking and biting can have long-term effects on how your nails look because it leaves your fingers vulnerable to inflammation, infection and swelling. And over time, chewing can permanently weaken your nails, altering their shape and ability to grow. If you’ve picked your cuticles to the point of redness or bleeding, apply a small squeeze of an antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. If they’re ragged, consider a treatment to condition the cuticle. If nail biting is your thing, try a long-lasting salon gel manicure.

Grooved nail beds: Not unlike the same process that causes your hair to stop growing or shed, stress-induced changes in diets can cause nails to stop growing. Luckily nails don’t fall off en masse like hair might fall out. Instead, about three months after an intense event, a deep and harmless horizontal groove, known as a Beau’s line, appears on the nail bed. As the nail grows, it can occasionally lift off of the nail bed and smooth itself out. This is normal and painless according to what I read. But more often, it simply grows out and is filed away. You can even out the line with a ridge-filling base coat.

Your Skin

Acne: The bane of my existence…even at 41. In a 2003 Stanford University School of Medicine Study, researchers suggested that graduates acne worsened during exams. Adjusting for changes in diet and the amount and quality of sleep, researchers determined that stress was the primary cause of acne flare-ups. The exact mechanism isn’t totally clear, but stress hormones on a rampage are known to increase oil production. More specifically, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline tell the body to free up more glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar) so it can be used as an immediate energy source to fend off threats. But the problem is, raised glucose levels also switch on a gene that promotes acne. Crap.

To make matters worse, cortisol, in and of itself, increases sebum production and decreases skin’s ability to reduce inflammation. At the same time, adrenaline, during periods of chronic stress, binds to sweat glands, which brings more pore-clogging sweat to the skin’s surface. It’s a perfect storm for acne to take over. Stress-induced acne responds to the same treatments as regular acne. You just might need to step up your game a bit. For example, if you usually use an over-the-counter product and it’s not effective, you might need to move up to a prescription. And get enough restful sleep—because lack of sleep is also associated with increased cortisol.

Fine lines and wrinkles: The spike in blood sugar we just talked about also raises the amount of sugar molecules in collagen, the protein that gives skin its structure. This process, known as glycation, forms compounds that stiffen collagen, giving skin a more brittle appearance over time. On its own, cortisol also reduces levels of glycosaminoglycan and hyaluronic acid—two molecules that keep skin plump and youthful looking. The effects of that compound are naturally more apparent as we age, but making over your diet can slow down the process. Get refined carbs and added sugar–which increase the rate of glycation tenfold–out of your diet as much as possible. Traditional anti-aging treatments can also be effective, too.

The moral of this story is… there’s no need to age ourselves prematurely. We’ve all got to find a way to de-stress and re-charge. Do whatever you can to chill out daily. Yoga, meditation, walking breaks. Whatever works for you to help keep you on an even keel, keep cortisol/adrenaline production at bay, and keep you looking as fine as you are.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and as stress-free as possible 2014!

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