Health and Hair: The Color Connection

Does your dentist, ophthalmologist or dermatologist ask, “Is that your natural hair color?”They’re not being nosy. They’re thinking about your health.In fact, your health and hair are more interconnected than you may realize. There's a strong link between a woman’s natural hair color and her chances of developing diseases and disorders, a decade's worth of clinical studies show.The reason: The genes that give your hair a charcoal, chestnut, honey or amber hue also affect health conditions like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and endometriosis, says Cleveland Clinic geneticist Rocio Moran, M.D.That's because “the melanocytes, or DNA, that produce hair pigment are controlled by genes that have roles in other processes in the body,” she says.What does your natural hue say about your health? Our experts have color commentary…

Redheads More sensitive to painBefore plopping down in the dentist’s chair, you might want to pop an ibuprofen (Advil). And make sure you remind the hygienist and dentist that you’re a natural redhead. Ginger-haired people tend to be particularly resistant to local anesthetics used in dentistry, according to a 2009 Cleveland Clinic study. Besides making for a painful cleaning – not to mention root canal – that hypersensitivity to pain may lead to anxiety about dental procedures.Redheads may require up to 20% more local anesthesia (Novocain or other, similar pain-numbing drugs) than other colors, says the study’s lead researcher, Cleveland Clinic anesthesiologist Daniel Sessler, M.D. That’s because redheads’ melanocortin-1 receptors (the DNA responsible for hair color) are malfunctioning. In fact, red hair itself is the result of a gene mutation.Painful procedures can lead women to avoid going to the dentist, says Dr. Sessler, who adds that this sensitivity also applies to surgical procedures. Redheads often require more general anesthesia then too.

The best way to avoid unnecessary pain: Talk to your dentist before having any work done, says Dr. Sessler. “Establish a method [before the procedure], for example, raising a finger, to communicate discomfort, so additional pain- block medicine can be administered.”Higher risk for Parkinson’sRedheads have nearly a 50% greater chance of developing Parkinson's than people with other hair colors, according to a 2009 Harvard Medical School study. People with black hair have the lowest chance, followed by brunettes, then blondes, researchers found.The gene responsible for fiery hair hues is headquartered close to a gene that, if mutated, can increase the risk for Parkinson's disease. And proximity can be all it takes to make one gene affect another.“The lighter the hair, the stronger the likelihood of developing the ‘bad’ variant of the Parkinson’s gene,” says Svetlana Kogan, M.D., an internist at Lenox Hill Hospital – and a natural redhead. “We found that [people] with a family history of melanoma had an increased risk of Parkinson’s,” says one of the Harvard researchers, Xiang Gao, M.D., Ph.D., instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Because redheads face higher risk of melanoma, Parkinson’s and melanoma “may share genetic components, most likely the genes related to pigmentation,” Dr. Gao says. High-strungReds are often more anxious than other colors. That’s because the same genetic factors that control melanin production (the DNA that gives hair its color) also affect how your body manages stress. “The genes responsible for the ability to produce anti-stress hormones live close to melanocortin-1 receptors,” says Margaret Lewin, M.D., a New York internist. And sometimes the gene mutation that causes red hair can lead the anti-stress genes astray, too, and cause faulty production of anxiety-reducing hormones like pregnenolone. “The decreased production of anti-stress hormones leaves a redhead more likely to be stressed out,” Dr. Lewin says.Blondes Prone to eye issuesBuy UV-blocking shades, if you haven’t already. Age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease that may cause blindness, strikes women more often than men, and blondes more than other natural hair colors. “The fairer your hair, the greater your risk,” Dr. Kogan says. And if you have blue eyes too, you’ve increased the odds.

“Although the exact link isn’t fully understood, the lack of pigment to protect blondes’ eyes from the sun’s retina-damaging rays may be a cause,” Dr. Kogan says.Greater chance of skin cancerIt’s no secret that fair skin increases your chances of melanoma, but light hair is a risk factor too.Researchers at Harvard say that no matter your skin tone, blondes should never leave home without slathering on a full-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen with at least 30 SPF.“Blondes produce less melanin, the cells that give your hair and skin its pigment. [It] can leave them especially sensitive to sunburns, sun damage and developing skin cancer,” says dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, M.D., president emeritus, American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery.And just because the sun isn’t shining, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from its rays. “You can get a nasty sunburn when it’s partly cloudy too,” Dr. Schlessinger says.

Most likely? Gals with golden manes. GrayYour genes don’t change when your hair grays. The DNA that once made your locks red, blonde or brown is part of your chemical make-up, even if your hair color shifts toward silver.“If you’re a natural redhead, you’ve still got an increased risk of Parkinson’s,” Dr. Moran says.Family history and age are the major factors that influence when hair color changes. But if it goes gray before your peers or seems to change more quickly, that could be the sign of other health issues. “Stress, smoking - which has been linked to cell damage - vitamin B12 deficiency and thyroid disorders can cause the body to stop making pigment, leading to premature or sudden graying,” Dr. Moran adds.

What’s Your Hair Color Personality?Is the redhead inside you just "dyeing" to get out? Choosing hair color involves more than a simple trip down the beauty aisle of your favorite drugstore. While you may have the sense to select a hair color that matches your skin tone, do you have the skill to match it to your personality? Take this quiz and find out!

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