At the tender age of 18 and in Senior Six, Herve Kamanzi started spotting white-like specks in his hair. It was very strange, and he never imagined it would be grey hair at that age. By the time he turned 21, half of Kamanzi’s head was already covered in grey hair, which puzzled many. How could a 21-year-old have so much grey hair? At first, he felt equally baffled, sometimes feeling older or uncomfortable with the ‘mzee’ jokes that often came his way—people bombarded him with questions and his classmates made jokes about it, which affected his confidence. ALSO READ: What factors influence ageing? He often made sure to shave his head bald to hide his grey hair. “Almost everyone I met commented about my hair, much as I thought this was not a big deal. Others asked me questions; do people get grey hair early in your family? Others said that it is a good luck charm to show that I will get wealthy in future,” he said. While it is normal for hair colour to change as people age, when grey hair appears early, it triggers a multitude of questions. Today, we witness an increase in premature hair greying. Insight According to research, the human body has millions of hair follicles or small sacs lining the skin. The follicles generate hair and colour or pigment cells that contain melanin. Over time, hair follicles lose pigment cells, resulting in white hair colour. There are numerous reasons for premature grey hair, as well as methods to slow down or prevent the greying process, particularly when it occurs at a young age, it raises some questions. ALSO READ: Age-defying fitness: Meet the Grandma’s Club In Rwanda, the phenomenon comes with a great deal of myths and misconceptions. Experts attribute it to many causes besides age, including vitamin deficiencies and many other factors. Just like Kamanzi, Claudine Mushimimana, 31, also encountered a similar issue of premature hair greying. She said: “The first time I noticed that my hair had started greying, I was in the salon, and this hairdresser I usually go to noticed a few grey hairs on my head, and she dramatically exclaimed: ‘Yegoko, wazanye imvi!’, translated in English to mean: “Oh, you have grey hair?!” “I was shocked because I had not seen it and this kind of made me feel a little awkward and scared that sooner or later my entire head would be grey,” she added. Mushimimana believes that her premature hair greying could be mainly caused by the fact she hardly eats fruits and foods rich in vitamins. “This really makes me feel uncomfortable and sometimes I’m tempted to dye my hair to disguise the grey. One of my children told me that there were white things on my head and I told her that it was grey hair and I could tell that she was very shocked.” Mushimimana, the youngest of six siblings, is the only one with grey hair. Traditional beliefs vs science While early greying in Rwandan culture comes with several theories and myths, it is more common today than it was before, but the causes are more or less the same. According to traditional healer, cultural researcher, and philosopher, Modeste Nzayisenga Rutangarwamaboko, the reason it was considered a ‘special thing’ is because it was a rare occurrence. “That is why when it happened, many people associated it with other factors, including wealth and wisdom. Grey hair was a sign of wisdom and experience. “The person was also considered to have done more for society and earned respect because of grey hair. This also applied to young people who got grey hair early.” ALSO READ: Natural hair care tips Rutangarwamaboko said, however, that today, early grey hair and balding have become more common and it could be a result of several factors including stress and depression. “A study done recently showed that many Rwandans are going through stress and depression. This could be one of the reasons for premature greying,” he said. Scientifically, there are various factors cited for the early onset of grey hair, including vitamin deficiencies such as Vitamin D3 and B-12, as well as smoking, which is also a major factor associated with premature greying. In fact, it is argued that improving the uptake of those vitamins and quitting smoking can reverse or slow down the quick spread of grey hair, according to Medical News Today. Similarly, a 2015 study indicated that various deficiencies, including the said vitamins plus other elements such as lack of copper, iron and other nutritional deficiencies, can affect pigmentation and lead to changes of colour in the hair. Hair gets dark because of the melanin produced through hair follicles but as we age, our bodies tend to produce less melanin as we age. The stress factor While greying is mostly a genetic-related outcome, oxidative stress in the body may play a part when the process happens prematurely. Oxidative stress causes imbalances when antioxidants are not enough to counteract the damaging effects of free radicals. Too much oxidative stress can promote the development of diseases, including the skin-pigment condition vitiligo. Medical conditions Marie Ange Musabyimana, a dermatologist in private practice, said that some medical conditions like autoimmune diseases may increase a person’s risk of greying early. “There could be many factors related to accumulating grey hair but they vary from one person to another and they could be more than one but they are all mostly linked to genetics,” she said. Research published in 2008 showed a connection between hair abnormalities and thyroid dysfunction. Can one prevent or reverse premature grey hair growth? If genetics or ageing are the cause, nothing can prevent or reverse the process. However, treating greying hair could allow colour pigmentation to return if the loss is due to a medical condition. When diet and vitamin deficiencies are the cause of premature white hair, correcting these may reverse the problem or stop it from worsening. However, as earlier mentioned, increasing the intake of said nutritional values is key. If grey hair appears in smokers, it is important to quit smoking, even if it means doing so gradually. Smoking has adverse effects on the body and contributes to white hair. And researchers have found a link between the habit and loss of hair pigmentation. A study from 2013 reported in the Italian Dermatology Online Journal, shows that smokers are two-and-a-half times more likely to start greying before the age of 30 than non-smokers. Furthermore, a 2015 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology also demonstrated that smoking is linked to premature white hair. Studies also recommended natural remedies as an alternative to slow down hair-whitening without affecting the body or causing further hair pigment damage. In some cases, people use curry leaves to slow down the greying. The medicinal use of curry leaves goes back centuries. When combined with hair oil and applied to the scalp, curry leaves can slow premature greying. This was affirmed by the findings of the International Journal of PharmTech Research which indicated the traditional use of curry leaves to retain black hair colour and actually slow down premature greying. Premature greying of hair (PGH), also known as canities, can have negative effects on the appearance, self-confidence, self-esteem, and social acceptance of the affected individual. Hair is said to have greyed prematurely if it occurs before the age of 20 years in Europeans, before 25 years in Asians, and before 30 years in Africans.