We’re breaking down circadian rhythms and bipolar, so you can keep your biological clock in sync and stabilize your mood.
Our biological clock influences everything in our body. Understanding how its rhythms affect bipolar symptoms, plus what we can do to minimize its disruption, may help us to stabilize our sleep patterns, maintain our mood, and improve our quality of life.
What Are “Circadian Rhythms”?
According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), circadian rhythms are “physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle.” These patterns are created and regulated by our biological clock—or our body’s internal timing system. As it turns out, this clock is responsible for a lot of what we experience throughout the day—and night! When our rhythms are disrupted, we feel it. Here is why that is.
#1 Everything about Us Is Tied to Our Biological Clocks
Our clocks influence almost everything about how our body functions: alertness, hunger, metabolism, fertility, mood, and other physiological conditions, according to circadian research from Mike Sesma at NIGMS. In fact, body-clock dysfunction is linked to various disorders, including insomnia, diabetes, and depression. Even drug efficacy has been linked to our body clocks, with studies showing that some medications might be more effective if given earlier in the day.
Circadian rhythms—daily cycles—are run by a network of tiny biological clocks, which are composed of genes and proteins that operate in a feedback loop, said Sesma. Clock genes contain instructions for making clock proteins, whose levels rise and fall in a regular, cyclic pattern. This pattern, in turn, regulates the activity of the genes.
#4 Changes in the Brain
For more than 50 years, there’s been evidence of something wrong with circadian rhythms in people with bipolar. Now, a three-year study conducted by McLean Hospital and published in Biological Psychiatry points to specific neuroanatomical changes in those with bipolar, according to lead author Harry Pantazopoulos, PhD. Somatostatin, a neurotransmitter that is also responsible for a healthy circadian rhythm of expression, is decreased in the amygdala in people with bipolar.
#5 Using Bright Light as Therapy
Treatment to correct the abnormalities in the amygdalae of those living with bipolar is possible. In many places, however, sunlight is unavailable at the appropriate time for use as treatment. In such cases, bright light therapy can reset the circadian rhythm, said Dr. Pantazopoulos. The therapy would be patient-specific and involve being exposed to a strong but safe amount of light for a regular length of time. One study found that midday exposure to bright light therapy was effective in reducing depressive symptoms while avoiding inciting mania or hypomania.
#6 Blue Light Exposure, Sleep, & Mania
Blue light, which is emitted from our artificial source of light, such as our various screens (televisions, smartphones, etc.), can disrupt sleep our cycles by suppressing melatonin, the “sleep-inducing hormone.” Fortunately, there are solutions. A number of studies have shown a reduction in duration and intensity during a manic period for people with bipolar by the use of amber lenses or blue-light-blocking glasses, which produce a virtual darkness condition. In one study, participants wore amber glasses from 6 p.m. until a prescribed bedtime at midnight and had a wakeup time set for 8 a.m. This provided an effective additive treatment for mania, with six hours of virtual darkness plus eight hours of natural darkness while sleeping.
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