Bipolar in Autumn

Did you know that the changing of the seasons can have a huge impact on people living with Bipolar Disorder? In this article, we explain why, and how you can reduce the risk of depressive or manic episodes by illuminating your light and sleep hygiene.

While we’re talking about mental health, here – may your day be made a bit lighter by this squirrel.
Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash

As summer morphs into fall, the days get shorter, and the world seems just that tiny little bit darker, day by day. Your body, wise from year after year of this same pattern, knows that something is changing. And as the nights get longer and your sleeping patterns shift, so does the chemistry that keeps your mood in check. Of course, this is true for every living being – but for people living with Bipolar Disorder, that slight shift in sleep quality and brain chemistry can mean a significant change in your overall well-being. In this article, we open the curtains and examine what to be aware of. 

Bipolar disorder is an illness that is both a circadian rhythm disorder and a mood disorder. The interplay between these two means that many people living with Bipolar disorder are sensitive to disrupted sleep patterns and changes in the light. The last two weeks of October are when the rate of change in the daylight is the greatest – so it’s worth paying extra attention to your sleep and light hygiene. 

Most people who have read up about Bipolar Disorder have internalized that it is a mood disorder, so let’s first look at what the ‘circadian rhythm disorder’ part of the equation entails. The critical thing to understand is that your body is on the lookout for two things: Duration and color of light. As humans, we are awful at judging time, but we are very good at sensing light. Light – and in particular blue light – is what makes our bodies wake up, feel alert, feel sleepy, know when to fall asleep, and stay asleep.

So what’s a circadian rhythm?

Not to get all science-y, but to talk about how circadian rhythms work, we have to take a brief detour into your brain. In a nutshell, your eye takes input from specialized cells in the eyes, tuned to perceive a particular hue of blue light – at wavelengths of around 460-480nm, to be precise. These signals go to the Super Chiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), which is a small part of the brain’s hypothalamus. Interestingly, your SCN is right above the optic chiasma, which is where the optic nerves coming from your left and right eyes cross as they enter your brain. Thus, the SCN is your circadian command center. 

If the days were always the same length and light never changed, our bodies would probably figure things out pretty quickly. We are exquisitely attuned to that particular blue light when it comes from sunlight. Unfortunately, there’s a long list of things that affect light: time zone changes when you travel, daylight saving time, and seasons changing. Working shift work or being forced to wake at times your body doesn’t like also plays into this.

On top of these ‘natural’ shifts in light, as modern humans, we bombard ourselves with this exact shade of blue light all the time. It pours out of our computers, our smartphone screens, tablets, TVs and some light bulbs.

That’s unfortunate, because as we are scrolling away on our phones, we’re deregulating our brain, tricking it into thinking it is daytime.

Knowing is half the battle: You can filter out blue light by wearing blue-light glasses (typically orange in color) in the evening to help our bodies understand it’s time to wind down for the day. Some phones also have a ‘night mode’ that removes some blue light from the screen, giving it an orange / red tint. 

All of this matters because when our circadian rhythm gets disturbed, this can trigger the mood disorder part of Bipolar Disorder. Poor sleep, interrupted sleep, irregular sleep, and sleeping at times where your body doesn’t do so naturally can all affect your mood. This is where it’s possible to enter a vicious cycle. Bipolar typically brings depression or mania, which come with their own respective sleep disturbances: sleeping too much or too little.

Let’s talk about mania first. This is where your mood becomes erratic, and your entire universe shifts into high gear. You feel like you need less sleep, and many manic people have an ocean of ideas. They often ‘think too fast’ and talk even faster. They have such a burst of energy that it’s hard to rest and hard to feel at peace. Some people experiencing mania become impulsive, and start making poor decisions around sexuality, spending money in weirder ways than usual, gambling, and other ‘indiscretions.’ 

Some people quite enjoy the productivity and creativity of a manic episode. Still, poor impulse control means that these episodes can have a huge impact financially and socially. 

Depression isn’t quite the opposite of mania, but it isn’t far off. People suffering from depression often have appetite and sleep disturbances – sleeping or eating too much or too little. They can often struggle with feelings of worthlessness (“I’m the worst, why do I even bother?”), guilt (“I’m letting my friends down”), and anxiety. 

The anxiety part can show up in several ways; in your thoughts as indecisiveness, fears, worries, and a feeling your life is moving towards a disaster of some sort. It can also manifest in your body as digestive issues, muscle tensions, and challenges breathing. Your heart may speed up or feel painful, and people may experience panic attacks. Often, people suffering from depression describe that they are ‘unable to feel sunlight’ – that all warmth and joy has been drained from the world, and they are just tired and crying all the time. 

Another aspect of severe depression is thoughts about death and suicide; feelings that perhaps the world would be better off without you or that dying would be easier than living. 

Planning your death – and taking steps to buy items to take your own life – all fall into this category. 

With any mood disorder, such as Bipolar Disorder, it is vital to get to know your illness. Only you know what is normal for you, and when things are moving in the wrong direction. If you feel symptoms coming on, remember to let your doctor, psychiatrist and/or therapist know. If you are taking drugs for your ailment, the dosage or type of medication may need to be adjusted. If you aren’t medicated, this is an excellent time to see if pharmaceuticals would be a good option for you. 

Regardless, knowing how light and sleep affect your mood disorder is helpful. Getting plenty of exercise may help you be more tired and sleep easier. Cutting out screen time in the evening can help. Eating healthy, in normal amounts, and at regular intervals, can also help your body along.

At Sphere Health, we’re all about help that really helps. If you think a friend or family member might benefit from these tips, please share this article with them! Every little bit helps and we’re certain they’ll appreciate it. For more information about Bipolar Disorder, visit the links above, or our website at www.asksphere.co.