As is the case with all our presidents, we are watching Barack Obama grow older before our eyes. It's almost as if someone pushed the fast-forward button on his natural aging process. Take a look at the then-and-now photos to see how gray he's gotten since his January inauguration.
Obama insists that his new hue has nothing to do with the burdens of his office. He said during an NBC interview yesterday from China, "My hair's gotten a lot grayer, there's no doubt about that, but I'm not sure whether that's just because I was about the age where my hair was going to start getting gray."
But he seems to have gotten a lot older looking in a very short span of time. Can this be due to stress? I ask Michael Roizen, a physician and chair of the Wellness Institute of the Cleveland Clinic and cofounder of the RealAge.com website. "Yes," he tells me, "we have good anecdotal evidence that stress can cause melanocytes [pigment cells within our hair follicles] to turn off the production of melanin, which gives hair its color." While it's true, as Obama implies, that we all have a genetically determined time when our hair begins to gray, this process can be accelerated by a high level of stress hormones due to, oh say, knowing that the future of the country is in your hands.
Roizen and his RealAge cofounder, Mehmet Oz, have examined how the presidency affects health and aging by evaluating the medical records of presidents over time, looking to see how their vital statistics—weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.—have changed. "Every president we've looked at since Teddy Roosevelt has aged two years for every year in office," Roizen says. [Female press secretaries, as I previously blogged, also aren't immune.] There's no reason to think Obama, who's dealing with two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, would be any different.
An inordinate amount of tension can turn off melanocytes, causing hair to lose its color. Can Obama turn them back on and reverse the graying? "Once deactivated, melanocytes remain viable for a while, but eventually they'll die," says Roizen. Since reducing stress on the job isn't an option, what can he do? "Eat black sesame seeds," Roizen recommends. "There's some evidence that they help melanocytes regenerate their ability to produce melanin; Chinese start eating them at age 30 to avoid going gray." Indeed, a Web search of "black sesame seeds gray hair" yielded more than 91,000 hits with websites like mamaherb.com, which recommends eating "one teaspoon of black sesame seeds once daily for three months" to reduce gray hair. (I wasn't able to find any published studies to suggest whether this was actually effective.)
Of course, that's assuming Obama wants to get rid of his gray hair. As Roizen points out, there may be a reason why none of our past presidents—besides Reagan—reached for the Clairol for Men. "Gray hair gives a distinguished look," he says. "They might think it gives them gravitas, which is fitting for the job."
The cultural norms for women, though, are quite different, which may be why we've seen no white locks on Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice. Janet Napolitano, though, does have an interesting silver streak. And, yes, women's hair can go gray from stress, just like men's. Marie Antoinette's auburn locks purportedly turned white overnight just before she headed to the guillotine in 1793. And sharpshooter Annie Oakley supposedly experienced the same thing at age 41 after she was involved in a horrific train accident. Severe fright, Roizen says, can cause the pigmented hair on our heads to fall out suddenly, leaving only the white hair behind.
Eating black sesame seeds may be an effective remedy. But alleviating stressful situations, when possible, is probably the best solution to maintain your hair color and your health. Roizen says it's good that Obama sneaks away to play basketball with his friends and grab dinner with his wife and daughters at night. Heck, if the president can find time for leisure, so can we.