Herbs for Bipolar Disorder

By Jim Haggerty, M.D.

There are a number of herbal remedies you can try for bipolar disorder (manic depression). Although the glossy, new veneer of today’s supplements may make them look attractive, it’s just as important to be a smart consumer in this area as it is with traditional medicine.

Being informed about the benefits and drawbacks of herbal remedies can be more difficult, however. Medications for bipolar disorder receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after years of research. Study results and detailed information about these compounds are available in numerous books, online, or directly from the manufacturers.

With supplements, that’s not always the case. It seems like every week another news story appears in the media making claims for a new antioxidant compound or herbal medication. These books, magazine articles, websites, and such sometimes wrap conjecture up in a thin veneer of science. They may reference studies that are misinterpreted, that appeared in disreputable journals, or that were so poorly designed or biased that no journal would publish them.

Supplement salespeople, and particularly those who take part in multilevel marketing schemes, seem to have taken lessons from their predecessors in the days of the traveling medicine show. They have little to lose by making outrageous claims for their products, and much to gain financially. Here are just a few of the unsupported claims found in a single five-minute sweep of supplement-sales sites on the Internet:

  • “Glutathione slows the aging clock, prevents disease and increases life.”

  • “Pycogenol…dramatically relieves ADD/ADHD, improves skin smoothness and elasticity, reduces prostate inflammation and other inflammatory conditions, reduces diabetic retinopathy and neuropathy, improves circulation and enhances cell vitality…” [and, according to this site, cures almost anything else that might ail you!]
  • “Sage and bee pollen nourish the brain.”
  • “Soybean lecithin has been found to clean out veins and arteries–dissolve the gooey sludge cholesterol–and thus increase circulation, relieve heart, vein and artery problems. It has cured many diabetics–cured brain clots, strokes, paralyzed legs, hands and arms!”

Take the time to browse your local store’s shelves, and you’ll probably spot a number of dubious products. Some companies try to deceive you with sound-alike names, packaging that mimics other products, or suggestive names that hint at cures. Other colorful bottles of pills contain substances that can’t actually be absorbed by the body in oral form–for example, “DNA” (deoxyribonucleic acid, the building block of human genetic material) graces the shelves of some shops. One manufacturer of this useless “supplement” claims that “it is the key element in the reprogramming and stimulation of lazy cells to avoid, improve, or correct problems in the respiratory, digestive, nervous, or glandular systems.” This company notes that its “DNA” is extracted from fetal cells; other brands are apparently nothing but capsules of brewer’s yeast.

Some other supplements provide end products of internal procedures, such as glutathione, instead of the precursors needed for the body to make a sufficient supply on its own, such as vitamin E. This approach may not work. When in doubt, consult with your doctor or a competent nutritionist.

How can you assess supplement claims? Start by relying primarily on reputable reference books for your basic information, rather than on advertisements or the popular press. Watch out for any product whose salespeople claim it will cure anything. Supplements and vitamins may enhance health and promote wellness, but they rarely effect cures. Be wary of universal usefulness claims. The worst offenders in supplement advertising tout their wares as cure-alls for a multitude of unrelated conditions.

There are a few other sales pitches that should make you wary. If a product’s literature references the myth of the long-lived Hunzas, someone’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes. This tale of hardy Russian mountain folk who supposedly all live to be well over one hundred years old was refuted long ago by reputable researchers. If it’s a natural substance but a particular company claims to be the only one to know the secret of its usefulness, that really doesn’t make much sense. Be especially cautious when sales pitches are written in pseudoscientific language that doesn’t hold up under close examination with a dictionary. This is a popular ploy. For example, one supplement sold by multilevel marketers claims to “support cellular communication through a dietary supplement of monosaccharides needed for glycoconjugate synthesis.” Translated into plain English, this product is a sugar pill.

Even when you have seen the science behind a vitamin or supplement treatment, there’s still the problem of quality and purity. It’s almost impossible for consumers to know for sure that a tablet or powder contains the substances advertised at the strength and purity promised. Whenever possible, do business with reputable manufacturers that back up their products with potency guarantees or standards. In many European countries, potency is governed by government standards; in the US, it’s a matter of corporate choice.

Natural does not mean harmless. Whenever a vitamin or supplement is powerful enough to heal, it also has the power to harm if misused. Be sure to work closely with your physician or a nutritionist if your child will be taking anything more complex than a daily multivitamin.

Herbal Remedies for Bipolar Disorder

Many herbs have been used to treat different conditions through the ages. Herbalists call these substances nervines, and some may prove useful for treating specific symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Of all the herbs, the nervines group of plant extracts are among the strongest and so are the most likely to cause serious side effects. Because of this possibility, you should always consult with your physician first before trying any of these herbs — especially if you are already taking medication for bipolar disorder.

The common types of nervines that have been tried by people with bipolar disorder include:

  • Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). A nervous system depressant and sedative, sometimes used by people with autoimmune conditions for its anti-inflammatory effects. Its active ingredient appears to bind to estrogen receptor sites, so it may cause hormonal activity.
  • Damiana (Turnera aphrodisiaca). A traditional remedy for depression. As its Latin name indicates, it is also believed to have aphrodisiac properties. Whatever the case may be there, it does seem to act on the hormonal system. Its energizing quality might be dangerous for bipolar patients.
  • Gingko biloba. An extract of the gingko tree, advertised as an herb that can improve your memory. There is some clinical evidence for this claim. It is an antioxidant, and is prescribed in Germany for treatment of dementia. It is believed to increase blood flow to the brain.
  • Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium). Has an energizing effect that may be helpful to people whose depression is accompanied by extreme fatigue and lethargy.
  • Grapeseed oil and pycogenol. Both are extra-powerful antioxidants. (Pycogenol is derived from marine pine trees.)
  • Gotu kola (Centella asiatica, Hydrocotyl asiatica). An Ayurvedic herbal stimulant sometimes recommended for depression and anxiety.
  • Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Liquiritia officinalis). Boosts hormone production, including hormones active in the digestive tract and brain.
  • Sarsaparilla (Hemidesmus indicus). Like licorice, it seems to affect hormone production as well as settling the stomach and calming the nerves.
  • St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). Has gained popularity as an herbal antidepressant. It has the backing of a decent amount of research. Those choosing to use this remedy should follow the same precautions as with SSRIs and MAOIs, two families of pharmaceutical antidepressants. It can also cause increased sensitivity to light. It is available by prescription in Germany, where it is the most widely used antidepressant. It is potentially dangerous to use St. John’s Wort with prescription antidepressants or any other medication that could affect serotonin.

Although most herbal remedies are relatively safe, you should consult with your doctor before trying one of these. Some herbs interact badly with certain medications, and can lead to serious and possibly harmful side effects.

 

APA Reference
Haggerty, J. (2007). Herbs for Bipolar Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/herbs-for-bipolar-disorder/000890
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.