Our lives have rhythm. Bipolar disorder is, to a high degree, a dysfunction of the circadian rhythms. During mania, the body does not need rest, or at least it thinks it does not. The manic person goes full-steam ahead in an energy expenditure that can only end in burn-out but may not for weeks.
What causes circadian rhythms to go awry? It turns out it is not just genes. Personal habits can also do it. When I was in college in 1979-82, I studied computer science. We did not have personal computers as we do now. We were limited to using the few computers available on campus. They were usually busy, so I solved that problem by working on them in the middle of the night. Many a night, light from terminals, the interaction with software, and the deadlines of my assignments, kept me working all night. My roommates were worried about me, but I kept up these habits because I wanted to finish college before I ran out of money.
What I did not realize at the time was that my body’s ability to regulate circadian rhythms was compromised. While I paid rapt attention in my classes, my freshman and sophomore years, by the time I was a junior and senior, I was dozing off in class. I often could not keep my eyes open, even though the subject matter was fascinating. Gradually, I became exhausted, but I finished college. Did that cause my bipolar disorder? I do not know. However, it did not help it.
Disruption of Circadian Rhythms
It turns out that five things that have contributed to the disruption of circadian rhythms in about everyone are:
- the electric lightbulb
- shift work
- electronic devices including computers and phones
- indoor living
Of course, we love these things, do we not? All right, maybe not shift work, but we love the conveniences provided by people who do shift work. These things are relatively recent inventions, and relatively recently, illnesses like bipolar disorder have increased. Has circadian disruption caused my bipolar? Maybe. It has not cured it.
So, what can we do? Do we give up technology and go live in a cave? I love technology. I am not likely to advocate that. However, I have one friend who did exactly that. He is enthusiastic about outdoor living also. However, I think even his cave has electric lighting. The important thing is to be aware of these dangers and schedule breaks from electric lightbulbs. Unfortunately, I have not been able to get away from them. My husband likes to have lights on in both bathrooms the entire night, which shine into the bedroom. Last night, I coaxed him into lighting only one of them.
I have tried using a sleep mask to block light, but it makes my sensitive eyes hurt, which does not improve my sleep. However, if that solution works for you, do it. Should I give it another try?
Being a computer-loving person, I do not get outdoors enough. However, I am starting to acknowledge that my health and mental health depend on it. Dr. Joseph Mercola walks along the beach for hours a day while reading. He believes in the healing properties of the sun. Of course, he lives in Florida, where the sun is less dangerous. I live in Colorado, the skin-cancer capital of the United States. However, I think a few minutes of morning sunlight would probably be okay. I could resume my resolve to walk to the library again, if not every day, at least more often.
Fasting Improves Circadian Rhythms
I am not going to resolve my circadian dysfunction all at once. However, I realize doing so is the next step in this journey. If I can fix my circadian rhythm dysfunction, I will also be able to resume fasting 15 hours per day, which will put my weight loss progress back on track. It turns out that food intake, as well as light, affects the regulation of circadian rhythms. So I need to work on both the timing of my light exposure and my food intake.
Even though I have kept this blog for over a year now, I struggle when I try to do the same things every day in the same order. I followed a morning ritual for weeks, and then I could not bring myself to do it anymore. I changed my routine a bit but was still not able to be as regular as when I started. Is this just the stubborn part of my nature? Or could this behavior be related to my bipolar disorder? I do not know. Perhaps it is human nature to seek out novelty, and when things become too routine, we balk. What is the solution?
The Circadian Code
I got a new book last night, The Circadian Code: Lose Weight, Supercharge Your Energy and Transform Your Health from Morning to Midnight by Satchin Panda. Panda is a research scientist working on circadian rhythms. He is a geneticist as well. I read his foreword and was so fascinated, I had to get the book.
I can see from his questionnaire that my days are full of circadian rhythm dysfunction. It could be worse, though. For many years of my life, I stuck to a strict 10:00 PM bedtime. However, my parents watched their TV upstairs, just above my bedroom, until 10:30 PM or later. I could always hear it, delaying my ability to get to sleep. Because of this, I tended to go to bed later and later. Then I tried getting to bed by 9:00 PM to allow myself time to get to sleep before my parents turned on the news. However, that tactic did not last too long.
Most of the day, I have been fascinated with Dr. Panda’s book. It turns out that a complete 15-hour fast is not necessary to get results. A 12-hour fast will render benefits. However, a 15-hour fast will provide even more benefits. This is Dr. Panda’s advice, “Start by establishing a 12-hour window for a week or two, and then try to decrease the time you eat by an hour a week. The reason to do this is that the optimum eating window is between 8 and 11 hours. This is because the health benefits that you get from eating within a 12-hour window double at 11 hours, and double again at 10-hours and so on until you reach an 8-hour window.”1
According to Dr. Panda, it is possible to be stricter at times and more lenient at other times, depending on whether I am eating with friends, for instance. I am glad I do not need to be so “all-or-nothing” about it.
Dr. Panda does recommend darkening the bedroom completely at night and perhaps using a cell phone flashlight to get to the bathroom if needed. However, my husband will not go for that. He insists that at least one bathroom stays lit up, which lights up our bedroom considerably.
Walking Outside to Strengthen Circadian Rhythms
I went for a short walk outside this morning, even though it was cold, and the wind was blowing. Dr. Panda recommends 5-15 minutes. That’s about how long my short walk was. Now, I need to do that every day. That’s a behavior change that will take me a while to adapt to. If there is a blizzard out, I will not do it; otherwise, I can, and I must.
Now that it is afternoon, I am feeling the effects of my short sleep from last night. I want to consider a nap. Dr. Panda said the nap would go toward my sleep debt, but it may not pay it all off. Daytime naps are usually no longer than an hour or two and are often much shorter. Let me do it anyway as I am now finding it difficult to type.
After My Nap
I slept over two hours, and I may not be caught up yet. If I can stop eating now, my consumption will be within 10:10 hours. That’s an excellent start toward getting some results. Dr. Panda said I will get hungry before bedtime, and I am sure that I will. Let me see how I do tonight.
In four days, my sleeping is starting to improve. I am better rested and feeling more energetic, and I have already lost over a kilogram! I am especially glad I am reversing the weight gain I have experienced since December. The winter blues are starting to go away. I made a circadian rhythm mind map of what I plan to do to improve my circadian rhythm. I have already done some of these things.
Now I can get out of my depression and stay out. This mind map requires a daily commitment. I have known many of these things for years but have not stayed committed to them. However, Dr. Panda’s knowledge of circadian rhythms showed me that a robust circadian rhythm is not only helpful for sleep and weight loss but can also:
- normalize bipolar disorder
- prevent metabolic syndrome
- improve the immune system
- reduce stress
- increase energy
- lift mood
- even prevent cancer
- heal digestive issues
I look forward to further improvement in the coming days, weeks, and months. If I could go a whole year without getting depressed, that would be the ultimate achievement.
My Increase in Activity
My JV Life Tracker scores show a recent increase in purposeful activity, probably due to paying attention to circadian rhythms.
If you would like to join me on this journey from the beginning, please start with Day One.
1Panda, Sanchin, Ph.D., The Circadian Code, Rodale, 2018, p.130.