How to REMove your white spots
It doesn’t seem long since I was soaking up some late summer sunshine in the garden and feeling incredibly grateful to see a nice, even tan in all the places where my white vitiligo patches used to be (except for a couple of freckled areas on my hands and feet that are, amazingly, still blending in after all these years). A fairly dry and bright autumn has come and gone since then, followed by the onset of an inevitably wet and chilly British winter. Last week a deluge of rain fell here in the far north west of England, creating serious flood waters in a matter of hours. These threatened to seep into our house, but thankfully, stopped just a few feet short before subsiding. Now, as I write this, I am looking out of the window at a soggy but peaceful scene. Only a handful of leaves still cling tenuously to the branches while the rest lie decaying on the ground. All the flowering shrubs and bulbs have died back and are resting, apparently devoid of life but actually drawing in nutrients and storing up their vital forces ready to burst forth in a riot of colour and energy again in the spring.
Mother Nature’s seemingly miraculous annual cycle of renewal makes me wonder at her ability perpetually to regenerate and thrive when left to her own devices. Surely there can be no logical reason to think that animals (including humans), being part of the natural world, should not also share this marvellous ability. After all, we are constantly dying and regenerating at a cellular level. Some people claim that by the end of any given 7 to 10 year time span every one of our cells will have regenerated, meaning that we become a completely new being. (Whilst this may not be strictly true, the concept is broadly correct.) And yet, of course, we are still the same individual with - hopefully - the same memories and personality. I find it amazing that our body knows how to recreate each part in exactly the same way each time, as if it has a set of blueprints to follow. In fact, it does have a genetic set of instructions, which I suppose is why most of us don’t mutate every few years into a completely different animal! And, as if that wasn’t impressive enough, every night we enter a state that resembles hibernation as we lie down, dormant, for 8 hours, apparently barely alive but in reality doing the same thing as the plants outside my window are currently doing: processing nutrients, resting, storing up energy and renewing ourselves.
Whilst sleep is something we all spend around one third of our lives doing (or, in some cases failing to do), most of us understand very little about it. It is a mysterious activity that, by definition, takes place somewhere beneath our consciousness and beyond our comprehension. Like so many physical functions, we are largely unaware and unappreciative of it… until it goes wrong. And when it does go wrong, on a consistent basis, it leaves us feeling wrecked. We may not understand why we feel so awful but sleep experts – who are gaining more and more insight into the purpose of sleep and the consequences of sleep deprivation – would probably agree that the term “wrecked” is an apt one, since it well describes the damage that occurs at a cellular level inside our body and brain when we do not get enough quality sleep. Just as a never-ending summer with no period of hibernation would eventually kill the plants in your garden, lack of deep sleep over the long term will eventually wreck your health from the inside out!
Why is sleep so important?
Everyone knows that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to looking good and feeling good. The term “beauty sleep” is a universally familiar one and generally refers to superior quality, restorative sleep as opposed to short naps or sedative-induced states of unconsciousness. More specifically, it was traditionally used to describe sleep that occurs before midnight, since popular belief had it that “an hour of sleep before midnight is worth 2 hours of sleep after midnight”. Up to a point, this is apparently one of those rather insultingly named “old wives’ tales” (but being a less than young wife myself, I feel I may use the term without fear of criticism). However, the belief does have some basis in fact. According to the Centre of Integrated Research and Understanding of Sleep (CIRUS) in Australia, it is not the actual time of day or night an individual goes to sleep that matters. No matter what time the clock says, sleep is at its deepest and most beneficial during its early stages (specifically during the first two cycles).
Another proverb (an Irish one) says “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book”. There is no question in my mind that laughter is powerful medicine (but I think that is probably a subject for another blog post). As to the length of sleep required for optimum health, current medical opinion suggests an average of 8 hours a night for an adult in normal health, more for adolescents and anything up to 12 hours for children. And, whilst sleeping long enough – but not too long - is important, experts agree that it is actually the quality of our sleep, not just the quantity, that is crucial. So what exactly is meant by quality sleep?
Studies show that sleep is made up of repeated cycles, each lasting about 90 minutes and consisting of two distinct parts. These are referred to as NREM (non-rapid eye movement ) and REM (rapid eye movement). These parts can be further categorised into light and deep sleep, with most deep sleep occurring during the first one third of the night and becoming lighter – and with longer periods of dreaming - towards the end.
Each phase of sleep presumably serves a particular purpose but it is thought to be during the periods of deep NREM sleep, when the heart rate slows, blood pressure drops and body temperature is at its lowest, that the most beneficial effects are derived. Precisely what is going on in the brain and the body during deep sleep is still not fully understood but it is in this phase, when the body is outwardly at its least active, that the brain and all the body’s cells and networks are, in fact, very active indeed: busy running all of the repair and maintenance routines that presumably cannot be accomplished during waking hours or during light sleep. If we get enough deep sleep we should wake up feeling like a new person.
Becoming a new person: sleep and our genetic code
I mentioned earlier that, mercifully, we do not mutate into different beings every time our cells renew. But, of course, we do change. For one thing, we grow older and, for another, we sometimes develop symptoms that weren’t there before. Sleep studies consistently indicate that people who are regularly deprived of sleep, whether due to lifestyle or sleep disorders, develop more of the symptoms of ageing and of chronic illness than those who enjoy good quality sleep. This is something that we all instinctively know to be true but which is only now being scientifically measured and better understood. Given that sleep is such a crucial part of the regeneration process, it seems likely that it is also essential in ensuring our genetic blueprint is faithfully maintained and recreated. As far as we know, we are all born with a set of genetic instructions that specifies we should each have a particular, uniform skin colour. So it is pretty clear that, in cases of vitiligo, something is going wrong at some point in the process of regenerating those skin cells (a process that takes approximately 4 weeks). Similarly, there are many other chronic conditions, syndromes and mysterious symptoms that people develop and that doctors struggle to diagnose or treat. We give all of these ailments names: we call unexplained pigment loss “vitiligo”; perpetual tiredness is labelled “ME”; and aches and pains all over that never go away is described as “fibromyalgia”. But another way of looking at these symptoms is that they are all the result of a departure from our original blueprint for normal health. Could a lack of restorative sleep be a cause – or at least a factor in the development of these apparently unrelated illnesses? Well, it would make sense. And it would be nice if it were that simple. In reality, I doubt that it could be the only cause of vitiligo, for example (otherwise insomniacs everywhere would be losing their pigment), but there can surely be no doubt that a lack of deep, therapeutic sleep could trigger its onset and would probably aggravate an existing case. So, it follows that improving sleep is highly likely to help slow, or even reverse, vitiligo. And not just vitiligo; I suspect this is true of most conditions that develop gradually and then become chronic.
Having reached this point in my musings, I am starting to realise just how complex and wide-ranging the subject of sleep and vitiligo is likely to be. It will certainly require a lot more detective work if I am to do it any justice and I don’t want to cause you to nod off (or do I?) by turning this post into a marathon. So, at the risk of leaving you with more questions than answers at this stage, I shall pause for now and come back to the topic in Part 2, once I have had some time to… yes – you guessed it – sleep on it.
My name is Caroline.