According to the rule of thumb, by the age of 50, half of the population would have lost colour in half of their hair. Some, however, will have found those strands of grey quite a bit sooner.
Premature aging – when white hairs appear before you hit 30 – is commonly blamed on genetics. Hair follicles contain pigment cells that produce melanin, which gives your hair its colour. At a predetermined point, cells stop producing melanin – typically in your late 30s or early 40s – and hair turns grey and eventually, white.
While in rare instances it could be cause for concern, a young person going grey is more likely to present himself or herself to their hairdresser than their doctor, says Eu Yan Sang physician Alicia Lim. “While we do have patients coming in for other conditions mentioning their greying hair, they do not specifically seek treatment for it,” she says.
However, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners believe that reasons for premature greying may go beyond genetics. It could signal weakness in the kidneys and liver, both of which TCM can help strengthen, and in the process, improve health – and hair.
Depletion of Kidney Essence
The kidneys, according to TCM, not only rid the body of toxins, but also store essence, or “jing”, which is responsible for maintaining bright, shiny and healthy hair, among other things. This essence is depleted as we age. Combined with slower blood and ‘qi’ circulation, also caused by advancing age, it can lead to the loss of hair colour, and is also the reason why grey hair appears brittle and falls easily.
In addition to greying prematurely, a person deficient in kidney essence will usually have memory problems, backaches and weakness in the knees.
The growth and vitality of hair is also reliant on the health of the liver, which is responsible for storing nutrients from the blood and for ‘qi’ circulation. Where the kidneys are weakened by the depletion of “jing”, the liver is weakened by strong emotions – especially anger, stress and depression – which can cause ‘qi’ and blood circulation to become sluggish, and the condition and colour of the hair to deteriorate.
Treating Greying Hair
When treating premature greying, TCM physicians usually prescribe food or herbs that boost the kidneys’ ‘qi’ and essence, and nourish the liver, blood and ‘qi’. Foods such as black beans, sesame, mulberry, blackberry and walnut can all help with hair colour as these strengthen the kidneys and liver.
One of the most effective TCM herbs for restoring hair colour is the fleeceflower root, or he shou wu in Mandarin.1.. It is also known colloquially as Fo-Ti root.
A ninth-century legend recorded by Tang dynasty natural philosopher Li Ao describes the discovery of this plant by an elderly man named He who was plagued by illness and infertility. He consumed the herb for a year and regained his health and virility.2
Fo-Ti is a yin tonic that strengthens and corrects deficiencies in the liver and kidneys, which in turn improves health, including the condition of the hair. The Chinese believe that Fo-Ti also acts as a longevity tonic. The herb is taken for anything from weeks to a year, depending on the individual’s condition. A qualified TCM physician is in the best position to advise on the optimal duration for each individual.
Another ingredient commonly used to combat premature greying and general illnesses associated with old age is black sesame seeds.3.
‘Cooling’ foods like watermelon, bittergourd and winter melon should be avoided, as should spicy and oily food, smoking and alcohol which cause heat and dampness and may impede the function of the spleen.
When it comes to lifestyle, sleep early and get sufficient rest – TCM physicians usually advice their patients to get their eight hours of sleep between 10 pm and 6 am. Adequate rest helps with the production of ‘qi’ and blood.
Patients should also manage their stress levels and improve blood circulation with regular exercise, including brisk walking, yoga, taiji and qigong.
Says Ms Lim, “Aside from the herbs and treatments we provide to patients, creating a general sense of well-being through a healthy lifestyle is very important to restoring balance to the body, which also helps maintain hair health and colour.”
1 Chew, J. (2012, January 12). The root of black hair. Mind Your Body, p. 18.
2 Ling, M. L. (2013, February 11). What Herb can Return Grey Hair to its Original Colour? Retrieved March 29, 2017, from Dr Mee Lain Ling Website: http://drmeelainling.com/what-herb-can-return-grey-hair-to-its-original-colour
3 Chew, J. (2012, November 15). Combat ageing with black sesame seeds. Mind Your Body, p. 18.