Bipolar Disorder & Circadian Rhythms: What You Need to Know

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Those of us with bipolar disorder have more difficulty regulating our circadian rhythms.


What Are Circadian Rhythms?

Responding primarily to light and dark, Circadian Rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that roughly follow a 24-hour cycle. Circadian rhythms are produced naturally from within our bodies and are also influenced from factors in our environment. A genetic component has been identified.

Circadian rhythms can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and more. They involve regular, rhythmic changes in sleeping, waxing and waning activity levels, sensations of hunger and thirst, & their satisfaction.

Circadian rhythms have been linked to insomnia and have also been associated with obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. For more on circadian rhythms, visit National Institutes of Health.

Whether purposeful or not, from time-to-time we all push our limits and throw caution to the wind. This may entail simply staying up really, really late and skimping on sleep. For me it also involves living on caffeine and eating whenever I can fit it into my busy schedule. But for those of us with bipolar disorder, this type of self-neglect can lead to perilous outcomes.

In those with bipolar disorder, poor self-care further contributes to the natural instability of circadian rhythms.

My doctors have been adamantly telling me this for years. But it wasn’t until finally experiencing the consequences of my poor self-care that I made changes. And by consequences I mean experiencing every mood swing under the bipolar rainbow in a short period of time.

Bipolar Disorder + Circadian Rhythms

It’s a spiral out of control situation.

The longer and more extreme the spiral, the more difficult it becomes to reset the circadian rhythm and to manage bipolar symptoms. Makes sense, right?

For example, if I usually go to bed at ten but one night randomly stay up until four a.m., it will immediately throw off my circadian rhythm. But generally speaking, if I went straight back to my regular sleep schedule I would probably get back in sync pretty quickly. Of course everyone responds to these things differently. I would definitely feel the effects though {e.g. grogginess, changes in hunger levels}.

Say I drastically began staying up later and later, changed my eating habits and lowered my activity levels – Whoa! I’d just be asking for a bipolar mood swing {or three!}. Which is precisely what I did over the summer and I don’t recommend it!

When we contribute to our circadian rhythm’s dysfunction by practicing poor self-care, we’re welcoming mania, depression, mixed states, hallucinations, and paranoia. We may even develop physical symptoms; like movements that are rapid or that are slow, jerky, and precise.


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What Can We Do?

  1. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning. Something that may help is developing an evening or bedtime routine or ritual. Set an alarm so you know what time to get started each night in order to make it to bed on time. Once you do it for a while you’ll be amazed and pleased with the amount of energy and overall sense of well-being you have. But if this still sounds too daunting, just make sure you get enough sleep!
  2. Get enough sunlight. Our circadian rhythms are triggered by our environment, largely the waxing and waning of daylight. Generally speaking, getting a healthy dose of sunlight midday is ideal. Though light therapy lamps, or boxes, are another option. However, do not use them without first discussing it with your psychiatrist. Light boxes are considered a mild anti-depressant. Though mild, they still run the risk of triggering mania and mixed states. So it’s best if used under a doctor’s supervision. -Lastly, when was your last physical? Especially if either of the above two options are not feasible. There are certain vitamins that are often found to be low in bipolar disorder patients, vitamin D is one of them. >> You may enjoy reading 3 Supplements That Fight Bipolar Depression.
  3. Eat & Drink Regularly. Think: “basic, good self-care” and “routine.”
  4. Get Regular Exercise. Make sure not to exercise too close to bedtime, as it can keep you up at night.
  5. Stay away from stimulants, like caffeine and nicotine. These can induce insomnia and even hypomania.

What are your thoughts on bipolar disorder and circadian rhythms? Have any experiences or helpful tips to share?

Krista-Lee-Pfeiffer


2 Comments

  1. JSan

    I wish I had the courage to share my story. I still have so far to go.
    I have so damage damage I have caused that I am ashamed of Who I am.
    I’m glad I found your blog.
    I know God Loves me I just don’t know if I have the strength to weather the journey I keep failing and I’m just exhausted with not being able to connect with people out of fear they will know I’m BiPolar.

    1. You DO have the courage inside you already! And you will share your story, in your own time. I completely understand where you are though. I caused soooo much damage too. It gets better, not perfect. We’re going to continue to fail from time-to-time, all of us. If someone says they don’t, they’re lying! What matters is that we keep trying. I know it’s hard, but try to show yourself compassion. The same compassion you’d show a loved one.

      After my diagnosis I was afraid of people finding out that I had bipolar too. It was like I put on a mask every time I left my house. But what I realized was that I was allowing bipolar to define me. When I was socializing all I was thinking about was, “oh my gosh, do they know?” Rather than just being me & leading with my natural personality, I was being led by bipolar disorder.

      I’m so glad you’re here! Hope to hear from you again. Thanks for reading & commenting! Wish you the best!
      -Krista

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