The Myth of Hair Turning Gray Overnight

You have heard stories of people experiencing a sudden trauma, resulting in their hair turning gray literally overnight. Both Thomas More and Marie Antoinette were reported to have experienced this rapid change before their executions. But is it possible? There is a similar hair condition called telogen effluvium that is characterised by sudden loss of hair. It occurs when a big trauma such as a tragic accident, bankruptcy, severe stress, major illness or surgery, chemotherapy (but also childbirth) cause a rapid increase in shedding and result in a person developing a sudden, diffuse hair loss condition. The stressful event can cause the hair follicles to prematurely cease growing hair and enter a resting phase. The hair will then stay in the resting phase for about three months, after which a large amount of hair will be shed suddenly. Hence, the sudden loss of hair will be delayed by about three months from the moment of experiencing the trauma. But reports of people turning gray overnight do not mention any delay. Nevertheless, telogen effluvium offers a plausible explanation to this mystery.

Hair is a protein that gets its natural colour from the presence of a pigment called melanin. Once the melanin-producing cells die, the hair turns white. Gray hair is actually a white hair whereas gray hair is only an optical illusion, a mix of white and pigmented hair. But hair cannot suddenly turn white because the hair you see is a dead fibre. The only living hair is underneath the skin while all the hair you see above the surface is dead and cannot change colour without external chemical influence such as bleaching or dyeing. A plausible explanation of a sudden change in hair colour is possible when employing the theory of rapid loss of hair - telogen effluvium. In people who have a mix of pigmented and white hair, the white hair is less likely to fall out. The reason might be that the white hair is stronger, as it is usually thicker in diameter and can better withstand shock. The result of such sudden diffuse loss of hair is that a person can go gray overnight as he sheds most of his pigmented hair. In regards to the aforementioned historical figures, they experienced a significant trauma, such as defeat or imprisonment, which triggered telogen effluvium, while the optical effect of suddenly turning gray was delayed until the big shed happened shortly before the day of their execution.

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