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Can Stress Really Turn Your Hair Gray?

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We’ve all seen the Before and After photos of American presidents. All the men who’ve served two terms in recent years have come out of the White House a lot grayer than when they went in. But is stress really to blame? And how does stress affect hair color for us regular folks? 

To figure that out, we first need to understand how hair works. Imagine your scalp is a factory. The product—the hair that you see and brush every day—is a tube of dead cells. It’s pushed up continuously through your scalp by your hard-working follicles. Part of this work involves making pigment in cells called melanocytes. The follicles of a healthy young person generally churn out brown, black, blond, or red hair without a problem. The robust machinery of their melanocytes can fend off a damaging process called oxidative stress (in this case, “stress” means cellular and not emotional strain).

But this, like all things, is temporary. By the time we hit our 20s and 30s, our follicular factories will start to show signs of wear and tear. The genes that fight oxidative stress begin to falter, which allows oxidation and its products to get a foothold. As oxidative compounds like hydrogen peroxide accumulate in our follicles, our melanocytes weaken and die. Facing a pigment shortage, our follicles begin to make colorless hair instead. Other changes in the factory affect the new gray hair’s texture, making it coarse, wiry, and more brittle than its pigmented predecessors. 

To find out where stress fits into the picture, we spoke with dermatology consultant Miri Seiberg, who has spent more than 20 years researching hair and skin. She said that stress can lead to a grayer appearance—just not typically the way we imagine. “Stress is more likely to cause hair loss and to increase shedding,” she told mental_floss via email, “rather than cause graying.” 

But there are exceptions. Although oxidative stress and emotional stress are not the same thing, they are connected. “A very strong, chronic stress is known to increase oxidative stress,” Seiberg says, “and there are studies that document correlations between extreme emotional stress and increased cellular oxidative stress. This is not to say that we gray every time we fight with our children or spouses.” 

The stress she’s thinking of is much more extreme. “History records that the hair of some condemned prisoners (e.g. Thomas More, 1535, and Marie Antoinette, 1793) turned white overnight before their executions,” Seiberg says. If these stories are true, the condemned were likely affected by a disease called diffuse alopecia areata, which affects 1 percent of people and can cause half of a person’s hair to fall out in a matter of hours. Since they’re more likely to shed dark hair, people with this condition who already have salt-and-pepper hair can appear to go gray or white overnight. 

Other medical conditions, environmental factors, and habits can also increase your odds of going gray earlier or faster. Smokers are four times more likely than non-smokers to go gray prematurely, as are people dealing with malnutrition or prolonged exposure to air pollution. 

So why do our presidents go gray in office? Because they’re middle-aged adults and they, like the rest of us, keep getting older. But the stress certainly doesn't help. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com. 

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Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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