Philip Maughan has written a fascinating article for Noema magazine on how and why humans have manipulated their circadian rhythms, especially recently.
Philip and I spoke briefly over email a few weeks back, as Philip had come across two of my blogposts from 2019, documenting the time I was part of a “triple chronotherapy” trial in London (you can read those here and here):
In 2019 the writer and photographer Matt Colquhoun took part in a trial of “triple chronotherapy,” an experimental treatment focused on individuals with drug-resistant bipolar disorder. According to the doctor who prescribed it, the treatment’s origins can be traced to the 19th century when a German schoolteacher reported she could temporarily cure depression by riding her bike all night. In 1976, Dr. Burkhard Pflug at the University of Tübingen published an experiment with patients undergoing sleep deprivation to alleviate depression. The treatment showed a “marked improvement” in the short term — but relapse was high.
Decades later, a protocol named “triple chronotherapy” was developed by staff at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, and included lithium, sleep deprivation and timed light exposure. When the regimen was trialed in London in 2019, there was no lithium involved. Instead, patients were required to stay awake all night — under supervision — before sleeping at 5pm the following day.
According to the timetable, in the four days that follow, bedtime is advanced by two hours each evening until it settles into an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. rhythm. Every morning, at 7 a.m., patients must view bright light. They must wear amber glasses for two hours before bed. This is then followed up with morning bright-light therapy between 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for six months.
It’s “like Ctrl-Alt-Delete and resets your internal clock,” writes David Veale, the doctor who led the trial in which Colquhoun took part, on his website.
[Colquhoun] wrote in a blog post immediately after treatment: “I have not felt this good in two years and it has transformed every part of my life almost immediately.” When I checked in with them recently, they told me they had not repeated the protocol because “though it worked wonders for me and was very useful in the controlled environment of the trial, to play with my own sleeping patterns unsupervised is something I’ve been reluctant to do, in case it all goes wrong!”
Check it out!