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Bipolar Disorder and Sleep


Updated June 20, 2009

Reprinted from: Bipolar II: Enhance Your Highs, Boost Your Creativity, and Escape the Cycles of Recurrent Depression - The Essential Guide to Recognize and Treat the Mood Swings of This Increasingly Common Disorder by Ronald R. Fieve, M.D. © 2006 Ronald R. Fieve, M.D. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.

"How many hours do you sleep on average at night, and what is the quality of your sleep?" are two of the first questions I ask every patient on the initial interview and all subsequent follow-up visits. While the hypomanic usually gloats over how little sleep he needs, getting by on 3 to 4 hours a night, the lack of quality sleep can wreak havoc on his mood and decision-making abilities. Sleep deprivation results in feelings of malaise, poor concentration, and moodiness, and even accidental deaths.

In a revealing sleep study published in the September 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Judith Owens, MD, and her team of researchers from Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, followed 34 pediatric residents from Brown University over the course of 2 years to compare post-call performance to performance after drinking alcohol. During this time, the residents were tested under light call (1 month of daytime duty with no overnight shift, or about 44 hours of work per week) and heavy call (overnight duty every fourth night with an average of 90 hours of work a week). The residents performed computer tasks to gauge their attention and judgment after their light call (after consuming alcohol) and heavy call shifts (with placebo). The residents who were on heavy call and had not ingested alcohol performed worse on the computer tests than those doctors who had taken alcohol and were on light call. Dr. Owens concluded that the residents were so sleep-deprived that they didn't recognize that their own judgment was impaired.

Drugs, stressful situations, and even excessive noise can affect daily body rhythms and moods. Once a Bipolar II mood disorder with disturbed rhythms has begun, it tends to be self-perpetuating, since depression and anxiety are likely to disrupt 24-hour rhythms further. An irregular living schedule can aggravate mood disorders. The old-fashioned sanitarium rest cure was effective with the "nervous" because it put the patient on a regular schedule of sleep, activity, and meals.


How is your sleep? Do you have difficulty falling asleep? Or do you toss and turn most of the night until you fall into a deep sleep just hours before the alarm goes off? A person suffering from insomnia has difficulty initiating or maintaining normal sleep, which can result in non-restorative sleep and impairment of daytime functioning. Insomnia includes sleeping too little, difficulty falling asleep, awakening frequently during the night, or waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep. It is characteristic of many mental and physical disorders. Those with depression, for example, may experience overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt, all of which can interrupt sleep. Hypomanics, on the other hand, can be so aroused that getting quality sleep is virtually impossible without medication. In a study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, Allison G. Harvey, PhD, and colleagues in the department of experimental psychology determined that even between acute episodes of bipolar disorder, sleep problems were still documented in 70 percent of those who were experiencing a normal (euthymic) mood at the time. These normal-mood patients with bipolar disorder expressed dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors regarding sleep that were similar to those suffering from insomnia, such as high levels of anxiety, fear about poor sleep, low daytime activity level, and a tendency to misperceive sleep. Dr. Harvey concluded that even when the bipolar patients were not in a depressive, hypomanic, or manic mood state, they still had difficulty maintaining good sleep.

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

This is the most common circadian-rhythm sleep disorder that results in insomnia and daytime sleepiness, or somnolence. A short circuit between a person's biological clock and the 24-hour day causes this sleep disorder. It is commonly found in those with mild or major depression. In addition, certain medications used to treat bipolar disorder may disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. I often recommend chronotherapy to patients. This therapy -- an attempt to move bedtime and rising time later and later each day until both times reach the desired goal -- is often used to adjust delayed sleep phase syndrome. To adjust the delayed sleep phase problem, sleep specialists might also use bright light therapy or the natural hormone melatonin, particularly in depressed patients.

Page 2: REM Sleep Abnormalities; Irregular Sleep-Wake Schedule

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About the Author

Ronald R. Fieve, MD, has published more than 300 scientific papers in the field of bipolar and depression research. His work has been published in such prestigious publications as The Lancet, Nature, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Archives of General Psychiatry, The Journal of the American Medical Association, L'Encephale, and Lithium. Dr. Fieve has also written two widely acclaimed books on mental health, Moodswing and Prozac (translated into five languages). He is professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, and principal investigator, Fieve Clinical Services, Inc. He maintains a private practice in New York City.

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