How to Naturally Treat Bipolar Disorder | 2021 Guide

How to Naturally Treat Bipolar Disorder | 2021 Guide

It’s estimated that 2.6% of U.S. adults struggle with bipolar disorder. ¹ Most people first experience the condition at 25 years old, but onset can begin at an earlier age.

People who struggle with bipolar disorder experience extreme mood shifts that hinder their energy and activity levels. These shifts are often referred to as “manic” and “depressive” episodes – each of which comes with a specific set of symptoms.

Traditionally, psychiatrists prescribe medication alongside various types of therapy in order to curb symptoms. However, such treatment has been found to have some negative side effects.

With that, there’s been a growing interest in all-natural remedies for bipolar disorder. Throughout this article, we’re going to quickly overview bipolar disorder. From there, we’ll seek out these alternative treatments along with their potential for helping you overcome symptoms. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes shifts in the following: ²

  • Ability to carry out day-to-day tasks
  • Activity levels
  • Concentration
  • Energy
  • Mood

Generally speaking, these shifts usually involve a “manic episodes” (when energies are high) and a “depressive episode” (when energies are low). There are three types of bipolar disorder, each of which differs slightly but still involves these shifts in energy:

  • Bipolar I Disorder – When a manic episodes last 7 days and are so severe, the person struggling needs hospital care. Depressive episodes will usually last at least 2 weeks afterwards. It’s possible for people with bipolar I to experience both manic and depressive symptoms at the same time.
  • Bipolar II Disorder – When an individual experiences depressive episodes alongside hypomanic episodes (a state that’s not as intense as bipolar I’s manic episodes).
  • Cyclothymic Disorder (Cyclothymia) – When periods of hypomanic and depressive episodes last for at least 2 years (1 year in children and adolescents). However, the difficulty with cyclothymia is symptoms don’t often meet the requirements for depressive and hypomania episodes. ³

In some instances, an individual may experience bipolar symptoms but not meet the diagnostic criteria for the above conditions. In these cases, the condition is referred to as “other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders.” The biggest difficulty with diagnosis is bipolar disorder often replicates symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

As mentioned, people with bipolar disorder experience two sets of symptoms: manic (or hypomanic) and depressive. The symptoms for each are as follows:

Manic and Hypomanic Episodes

  • Decrease need for sleep
  • Experiences of jumpy or wired
  • Feeling unusually important, talented, and/or powerful
  • Feeling very “up” or “high”
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Managing a number of tasks at once
  • Racing thoughts
  • Risky behavior (i.e. spending lots of money, excessive drug use, reckless sex, etc.)
  • Talking very fast (usually about a number of topics)

Depressive Episodes

  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Difficulty with sleep (i.e. trouble falling asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping too much)
  • Feeling very sad, empty, worried, and hopeless
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Inability to perform even simple tasks
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Restlessness
  • Slowed speech (feeling as though you don’t have anything to say)
  • Suicidal ideation

Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder

Researchers still aren’t 100% sure what causes bipolar disorder. However, the majority agree there is no single cause. Rather, it’s likely there are various factors that all play a role in a person experiencing this condition. Some of the recently studied include:

  • Changes in Brain Structure and Functioning – Studies have found that those who struggle with bipolar disorder have different brain structuring than those without bipolar disorder (and other mental health conditions). ⁴ Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about these differences as of this time and medical professionals are not allowed to make a diagnosis purely on brain scans.
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse – It’s been found that individuals with a substance abuse history are more likely to develop certain mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder. ⁵
  • Environment – Extremely stressful life events have been linked to bipolar disorder. Most notably, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional mistreatment. ⁶
  • Genetics – Research has found that people with specific genes are much more likely to develop bipolar disorder than individuals without these genes. Furthermore, it’s found that those with a parent or a sibling with bipolar disorder tend to have an increased risk of developing the disorder themselves. ⁷

Even if you haven’t experienced any of the above risk factors, it’s important to talk to a doctor if you have experienced bipolar disorder symptoms.

Naturally Treating Bipolar Disorder

When we discuss naturally treating bipolar disorder, we aren’t merely discussing a set of herbs you can take or therapeutic practices to involve yourself in. Rather, treating bipolar disorder requires lifestyle changes – a change in the way you go about your day-to-day life and your perspective.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for bipolar disorder. Rather, there are a multitude of ways to suppress symptoms in order for you to live a fulfilling life. It’s important to understand this before we dive into how to naturally treat bipolar disorder.

Furthermore, it’s vital you understand that most of these measures (specifically, the herbs and supplements) have not been approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of bipolar disorder. Instead, there are a number of self-reports and clinical research suggesting the following can help.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes are one of the few keys in unlocking what it takes to manage bipolar symptoms. Developing new habits isn’t easy and we understand it may be difficult for you to curb some bad habits you’ve developed. However, according to research, it only takes an average 66 days for a new habit to develop. ⁸

With that said, we guarantee putting in the effort towards these new habits is well-worth the outcome. We’ve carefully selected four in accordance to recent research concerning how these lifestyle choices effect bipolar disorder:

1.) Diet

Healthy diet is important to all of us and this is especially true for those with a mental health condition. Recent research has discovered a “gut-brain connection” that links bad diets to negative mental effects. This connection works vice versa as well where stress, anxiety, and depression can lead to a “gut-wrenching” experience. ⁹

In a 2011 study, it was discovered that 68% of people seeking treatment for bipolar disorder had excess weight or obesity. These individuals were also more at risk of physical health conditions, such as diabetes, low bone density, and cardiovascular disease. ¹⁰

In a separate study, it was discovered that those with bipolar disorder had a higher chance of binge eating. ¹¹ Some research has suggested that this may be one of the side effects of medication. Others have suggested overeating is a result of depressive episodes. ¹²

The link between bipolar disorder and unhealthy diets isn’t entirely understood. However, some scientists believe it may due with the fact that those with bipolar disorder have an imbalance of serotonin. Being as serotonin affects appetite, some may seeking out sweet or carbohydrate-filled food in order to make up for this lack of chemicals. ¹³

There are a few steps you can take to ensure that you’re eating properly in order to manage bipolar disorder. These include:

  1. Develop a diet that’s well-balanced in nutrients
  2. Eat on a schedule
  3. Develop a meal plan to help ensure you stick with your diet

While there’s no denying it’s difficult for anyone to change what they eat, such habit alterations can really help those with bipolar disorder. Staying overweight with this condition puts you at risk of not only maintaining bipolar disorder but also developing anxiety, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

2.) Sleep

People with bipolar disorder often struggle with sleep. In depressive episodes, one may find themselves experiences insomnia or sleeping too much. In manic episodes one may not feel much need for sleep at all. ¹⁴

An erratic sleep schedule can have a number of negative consequences to your life. Most notably, your ability to manage your moods. ¹⁵

There are a few things you can do in order to ensure you’re getting a better night’s rest:

  1. Sleeping on a schedule (going to sleep and getting up at regular hours)
  2. Keeping your room comfortable enough to sleep in
  3. Avoiding stressful situations before going to sleep
  4. Staying away from large meals within a couple hours of your sleep time
  5. Avoiding or limiting alcohol and drug consumption

If sleep is one of your primary difficulties, there are medications out there that can help. This is something you should talk to your doctor about to ensure no negative drug interactions with other medications you may be one.

However, many have found cannabidiol (CBD) and melatonin (especially a combination of the two) to be extremely beneficial for their sleep. ¹⁶

3.) Exercise

It’s common sense that exercise is good for our health and helps to prevent a number of disease. Practicing exercise is prevalent when it comes to bipolar disorder as it helps us balance our moods and avoid certain associated health problems, such as obesity and cardiovascular disease. ¹⁷

Unfortunately, there still much research necessary to tell us how much exercise can affect bipolar disorder. However, what exists is promising.

In a 2015 review, exercise was found to “be a viable and effective strategy to deal with the depressive phase of bipolar disorder.” ¹⁸ In a separate review, “exercise was associated with improved health measures, including depressive symptoms, functioning, and quality of life.” ¹⁹

From these two reviews, we can conclude that exercise is most prominent during a depressive episode. Of course, this will most likely also be the most difficult time to engage in such activity. In order to maintain motivation, it may help to reward yourself after a healthy workout.

4.) Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

As already mentioned, people who struggle with bipolar disorder are more at risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. Furthermore, the same is true vice versa – those who struggle with addiction are more likely to develop a variety of mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder. ²⁰

In one study, it was discovered that 56% of people with bipolar had experienced alcohol or drug addiction at some point in their lives.

The link between substance abuse and bipolar disorder is likely due to brain changes caused by the condition. As mentioned, people with bipolar are more likely to engage in risky behavior. It’s believed this is due to alterations in brain circuits responsible for reward experiences. ²¹

This can lead certain people chasing short-term rewards, such as drugs and alcohol. In turn, they don’t consider the long-term consequences such actions can have.

If you engage in drugs and alcohol or have considered such activity, there are a few things you can do to avoid this behavior:

  1. Understand your tendencies – it’s important to become aware that you’re vulnerable to risky (and often addictive) behavior
  2. If you’re currently on drugs or alcohol, it’s vital to seek out the proper treatment
  3. Find support in loved ones who can help prevent you from relapse

Since drug and alcohol addiction can bring a whole new set of problems, it’s extremely difficult for you to overcome bipolar disorder when engaging in such behavior.

Alternative Therapies for Bipolar Disorder

Alongside your lifestyle changes, there are a number of therapies you can participate in to learn coping mechanisms for your bipolar disorder symptoms. It should be noted that there’s only so much research concerning each of these therapies and they are in no manner replacements for therapies suggested by your psychiatrist:

1.) Meditation

Meditation is the practice of deep contemplation in order to better comprehend your inner self. Many have found it to be extremely relaxing and helpful in overcoming daily stresses. For this reason, it’s been suggested to people with bipolar disorder.

Mindfulness meditation has found to be the most effective form of meditation for those with bipolar disorder. Through this method, you’ll practice “paying attention” in a way that makes you aware of what you’re thinking and feeling. The goal is to bring this awareness with a lack of judgement so you can identify and disengage from distress thoughts.

Recent studies have found that meditation isn’t something that can help those with bipolar disorder in the short-term. However, when used alongside medication, mindfulness meditation had very effective results in the long-term. ²²

So much so, many facilities are beginning to incorporate mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in their treatment methods for bipolar disorder. This is when mindfulness meditation is practiced alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

In a 2017 study, it was found that those who participated in MBCT for two years found a significant improvement in symptoms and overall quality of life. Most notably, they were able to prevent depressive symptoms from relapsing. ²³

2.) Light Therapy

Generally speaking, light therapy involves full-spectrum bright light exposure through a light source (i.e. a light box or a light visor). This light source is exposed directly to the eyes and requires regular visits to a doctor’s office (sometimes daily).

While it’s not entirely clear how light therapy works, it’s believed to help boost brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep. Most often, it’s used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD). ²⁴

Light therapy is currently being used to help manage depressive symptoms associated with bipolar disorder. ²⁵ With that said, it’s unlikely you’ll notice any reduction in manic episodes from light therapy and, therefore, should seek treatment for that down other avenues.

3.) Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT)

Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) is meant to stabilize an individual’s daily rhythm – from sleeping to waking to eating proper meals. The “interpersonal” aspect of this therapy is directly related to an individual’s moods and how it affects their day-to-day life. Through “social rhythm,” the goal is to help you develop a long-term daily routine that reduces bipolar symptoms.

There is currently only so much research backing up IPSRT. However, it has been discovered that it can help with bipolar disorder in the long-term. Especially when used alongside medication. ²⁶ ²⁷

If you plan to seek out IPSRT, it’s important to understand the different phases of treatment. These are as follows:

  • Initial Phase – You and your therapist will explore how bipolar episodes in the past have disrupted your daily routines.
  • Intermediate Phase – Designing a new structure for your social rhythms (i.e. setting a schedule for when you should go to bed and wake up). In this phase, it’s common to chart down various aspects of your life, such as your mood, sleeping, eating, and exercising habits.
  • Maintenance Phase – Now that you’ve developed new social rhythms, it’s important to reinforce them so they become habitual.
  • Final Phase – Making sure you’re able to stick with your new rhythm while reducing how often you go to IPSRT.

Typically, IPRST lasts about 16 weeks. At first, you’ll making weekly visits and this will be followed by monthly visits. However, everyone is different and some may need longer or shorter treatments.

4.) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a nonconventional psychotherapy that’s been found to be effective in patients with trauma. The therapy involves accessing and processing traumatic memories and, from there, developing adaptive solutions. ²⁸

EMDR therapy has been found to be effective for bipolar patients who had experienced one of the many types of trauma. ²⁹ This is especially true when it’s practiced alongside IPRST.

More research is necessary to confirm that EMDR can effectively help people overcome trauma. However, if it can, it’s believed that this would be extremely beneficial for certain bipolar patients. For if you can overcome your trauma, you’ll have a much easier time developing coping mechanisms for bipolar symptoms.

Best Natural Herbs and Supplements for Bipolar Disorder

Certain herbs and supplements have been found to help people relieve bipolar symptoms. Unfortunately, none of these have been found to be as effective as traditional bipolar medication. With that said, we don’t suggest you stop your conventional treatment path in replacement for these herbs and supplements.

Rather, we suggest talking to your doctor about using these herbs and supplements alongside the medication you’re taking. In cases where an individual is showing promising signs, it may be possible to ween off medication in favor of taking natural remedies. Of course, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor before diving into such an endeavor.

We’ve picked out four of the most beneficial all-natural supplements people take in order to help manage bipolar symptoms:

1.) Magnesium

Some research has found that magnesium is effective in mood regulations. With that, it’s believed they can help in managing both manic and depressive episodes. ³⁰ ³¹ In fact, some believe magnesium can make traditional bipolar medication more effective. ³²

Magnesium is so prominent for bipolar disorder that some doctors may recommend you take them regularly. It’s worth mentioning that multivitamins tend to include the daily recommended dosage for magnesium.

2.) Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil have an interesting link to bipolar disorder. In countries where people consume large amounts of fish, there’s been a noticeably less cases of the condition. ³³ For this reason, some scientists believe fish oil supplements may be able to help bipolar patients. ³⁴

Beyond helping with symptoms, omega-3 fatty acids have a number of health benefits in and of themselves – from lowering blood pressure to supporting with heart health. ³⁵ If you’re looking to incorporate them into your diet rather than taking a fish oil supplement, you’ll want to start eating foods such as cold-water fish, nuts, and plant oils.

3.) Vitamins

There have been some self-reports of vitamins helping people manage bipolar symptoms. Most notably, vitamin C and folic acid.

Researchers saw these claims, but couldn’t find much evidence that vitamin C helped with bipolar disorder. Even more so, they found no support in using folic acid specifically for bipolar.

The difficulty is folic acid has been found to help regulate cognitive health. ³⁶ With that, it may be assumed that it can help those struggling with mental illness. Unfortunately, mental health conditions are extremely complicated and effect everyone differently.

For this reason, we need more studies to confirm these vitamins can help with bipolar disorder. Still, they’re worth a shot as they can help your overall health.

4.) High-Nutrient Foods

As mentioned, a good diet is one of the key aspects in treating bipolar disorder. With that, it’s in your best interest to develop healthy eating habits to prevent further ailments from appearing.

A balance of the following protective, nutrient-dense foods may prove to be helpful:

  • Cold-water fish
  • Fruits
  • Lean meats
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy products
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains

All of the above foods can help the body better regulate moods and, in turn, allow you to have an easier time managing bipolar symptoms.

Word of Caution on Natural Herbs and Supplements

When it comes to treating depressive episodes, some websites suggest using St. John’s wort as a natural remedy. However, we strongly advise against this as the supplement has been found to increase your chances of mania and may even interfere with antidepressants. ³⁷

Furthermore, none of the above-mentioned supplements have been approved by the FDA for treatment of bipolar disorder. With that, it’s in your best interest to consult your doctor before consuming these alternative medications.

Traditional Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

Traditional treatment for bipolar disorder has been found to be quite effective in allowing people to overcome symptoms and live fulfilling lives. Since this is a lifelong condition, people usually stay on treatment for long periods of time. Even once off treatment, the risk of relapsing remains prevalent and, therefore, so does the necessity for further treatment.

Currently, treatment involves two important factors: medication and psychotherapies. ³⁸

Medications

Medication is one of the key features in treating bipolar disorder as it can help to stabilize moods. The most common bipolar medications include:

  • Carbamazepine
  • Lamotrigine
  • Lithium
  • Valproic acid

Unfortunately, doctors have no way of telling how a medication will affect someone’s bipolar disorder. With that, you’ll likely need regular monitoring and consistent medication adjustments in order to find the right dosage for you.

Furthermore, some people with bipolar disorder will experience psychosis. In such instances, a person may be given one of the following antipsychotic drugs:

  • Aripiprazole
  • Asenapine
  • Lurasidone
  • Olanzapine
  • Quetiapine
  • Risperidone
  • Ziprasidone

If your psychosis is extreme, you may be recommended hospitalization. Especially if your symptoms show signs of danger to yourself or others.

You may also be prescribed an antidepressant in order to manage depressive episodes. However, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t take antidepressants alone as they can trigger mania. Even when you’re not experiencing mania, it’s important to take the mood-stabilizing medication alongside antidepressants.

Psychotherapies

Psychotherapies (also known as “talk therapy) are just as necessary as medication. While the treatment techniques vary, all aim to help you identify your difficult emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Through this, you can identify triggers and overcome these difficulties.

The most common psychotherapies for bipolar disorder are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoeducation. Some facilities may recommend other forms of therapy, such as interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) and family-focused therapy, depending on your situation.

Final Word

When it comes to natural treatments for bipolar disorder, it’s advised you stick with a conventional treatment plan as well. Those who have found the most benefits from all the information above continue to take medication and go to therapies at their doctor’s recommendation.

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that everyone reacts to these all-natural treatments differently. You may find one supplement works better than another or one lifestyle change helps you more.

It’s going to take some experimentation before you can identify the best natural treatment path for you. With that, it’s important to make sure your doctor is aware of everything you’re doing so they can help identify the risks and benefits of such endeavors.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning how to naturally treat bipolar disorder?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further advice to offer – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Statistics of Bipolar Disorder

² National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Bipolar Disorder

³ Current Neuropharmacology (Bentham Science Publishers LTD.): Diagnosis and Treatment of Cyclothymia: The “Primacy” of Temperament

⁴ Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Cognitive neuroscience and brain imaging in bipolar disorder

⁵ Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy (BMC): The prevalence and significance of substance abuse disorders in bipolar type I and II disorder

⁶ medicina (MDPI): Environmental Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorders and High-Risk States in Adolescence: A Systematic Review

⁷ The Application of Clinical Genetics (Dovepress): Genetics of bipolar disorder

⁸ British Journal of General Practice (BJGP): Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice

⁹ Harvard Health Publishing (Harvard Medical School): The gut-brain connection

¹⁰ Official Journal of the World Psychiatry Association (WPA): Physical illness in patients with severe mental disorders. I. Prevalence, impact of medication and disparities in health care.

¹¹ Journal of Affective Disorders: Clinical phenotype of bipolar disorder with comorbid binge eating disorder

¹² Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management (Dovepress): Pharmacological management of binge eating disorder: current and emerging treatment options

¹³ Indian Journal of Psychiatry: Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses

¹⁴ Nature and Science of Sleep (Dovepress): The role of sleep in bipolar disorder

¹⁵ JMIR Mental Health: Relationship Between Sleep Quality and Mood: Ecological Momentary Assessment Study

¹⁶ The Permanente Journal: Cannabidiol in Anxiety and Sleep: A Large Case Series

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¹⁹ Journal of Affective Disorders: Exercise in bipolar patients: A systematic review

²⁰ National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Common Comorbidities with Substance Abuse Research Report: Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Abuse Disorders and Mental Illness

²¹ Brain: A Journal of Neurology (Oxford Academic): Decision-making and trait impulsivity in bipolar disorder are associated with reduced prefrontal regulation of striatal reward valuation

²² HHS Public Access: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder: Effects of Cognitive Functioning

²³ National Library of Medicine (PubMed): Self-Reported Long-Term Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Patients with Bipolar Disorder

²⁴ ClinicalTrials.gov: Bright Light Therapy in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

²⁵ L’Encéphale: Luminothérapie et épisodes dépressifs saisonniers du trouble bipolaire (Bright light therapy in seasonal bipolar depressions)

²⁶ Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy: an intervention addressing rhythm dysregulation in bipolar disorder

²⁷ Annals of General Psychiatry (BMC): Efficacy of the interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) in patients with bipolar disorder: results from a real-world, controlled trial

²⁸ Springer Publishing Company: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing EMDR Therapy Scripted Protocols and Summary Sheets: 7: The EMDR Therapy Protocol for Bipolar Disorder

²⁹ Trials (BMC): Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy versus supportive therapy in affective relapse prevention in bipolar patients with a history of trauma: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial

³⁰ Magnesium in the Central Nervous System [Internet]: Magnesium in psychoses (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder

³¹ Magnesium in the Central Nervous System [Internet]: Magnesium and major depression

³² BJPsych Open: Magnesium and mood disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis

³³ National Library of Medicine (PubMed): Cross-national comparisons of seafood consumption and rates of bipolar disorders

³⁴ Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment (Dovepress): Mood disorders and complementary and alternative medicine: a literature review

³⁵ Harvard T.H. Chan (School of Public Health): The Nutrition Source: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution

³⁶ Scientific Reports: Folic acid supplementation improves cognitive function by reducing the levels of peripheral inflammatory cytokines in elderly Chinese subjects with MCI

³⁷ Psychiatry (MMC): Mania and Psychosis Associated with St. John’s Wort and Ginseng

³⁸ MedlinePlus: Bipolar Disorder

Paul James is the Editor in Chief of Bedlamite Publications. He is also a content manager at CBD Nerds, a freelance writer, and aspiring screenwriter.

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