There are alternative or complementary treatments for bipolar disorder, that include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin and mineral supplements and acupuncture. Omega-3 is found in deepwater fish such as salmon (not farm-raised salmon) and in flax. One study found that countries with low fish consumption coincided with high depression rates. A pilot study using omega-3 in conjunction with normal medications found the substance to be effective in treating the depressed phase of bipolar disorder. Until more is known, however, it’s advised that omega-3 be considered as a complement to, rather than as a replacement for, one’s normal medications. Buy only preparations that have more EPA than DHA.
Unfortunately, much of the food we eat comes from soil depleted of nutrients. The raw materials for producing neurotransmitters are nutrients. A deficiency of vitamin B6, for instance, may affect how serotonin is synthesized. Various small studies are finding single nutrients or nutrient combos can have affects ranging from subtle to pronounced. One pilot study found a certain supplement combination dramatically improved symptoms in bipolar patients. Larger studies are planned. And it isn’t just about mood. Antioxidants, for example, can improve memory and protect against free radicals that can damage neurons. These, however, should be used under a doctor’s supervision. Consulting a nutritionist is also recommended. It is advisable to use supplements as a complement to medications rather than as a replacement.
A pilot study using acupuncture compared depression treatment (where the needles were placed at specific “depression” points) to sham treatment (the needles were randomly applied) and found those in the depression treatment group experienced a 42 percent reduction in symptoms compared to 22 percent for the controls, with virtually no side effects. A larger study is underway, as is an acupuncture study using bipolar patients.
Diet, Exercise, Sleep and Stress Affect Bipolar Disorder
Lifestyle choices include diet, exercise, sleep, avoiding stress, and religious or spiritual practice. Diet is crucial to good mood. When choosing a healthy diet, there are no right or wrong choices, though in general high fat, high sugar, and high carbohydrate diets should be avoided; and, junk foods, caffeine and alcohol restricted. Lack of folate (from leafy green vegetables) and high sugar intake have been linked to depression. Carbohydrates get processed into sugar, which can boost serotonin but also induce mood-busting sugar crashes. Chocolate can act as a tasty antidepressant, with an endorphin-like effect, but can also set one up for a sugar crash. Paradoxically, eating too much sugar can lower blood sugar levels in some people, which results in further unhealthy cravings. Be mindful about switching to NutraSweet, however. One small study of patients with depression found they had severe reactions to its working chemical, aspartame.
Numerous studies have found aerobic exercise works as effectively as antidepressants. Generally, the last thing you want to do when you’re depressed is exercise, but even a five minute walk can help. Exercise restores regular sleep and eating, raises energy levels, generates endorphins, boosts serotonin levels, and may stimulate new brain cell growth.
Too little or too much sleep affects just about everyone with a mood disorder. Missing a night’s sleep can trigger a manic episode. For most of us, sleep is half the battle; but, for many of us, sleep is the full battle. Conquer sleep and you may conquer your mood disorder. A major key to establishing good sleep hygiene is going to bed and waking up at a regular hour. For those who continue to experience difficulties, talking therapy can help, as well as sleeping pills and wakefulness agents.
Stress is toxic to anyone with a mood disorder, so every effort needs to be made to reduce stressful situations from one’s life and develop appropriate skills for coping. This may involve major life decisions regarding work and personal relationships. Numerous talking therapies can help people work through difficult job and relationship situations so that stress is less of a factor in one’s life. Therapy can also teach a range of coping skills. Other coping strategies include exercise, meditation, yoga, and relaxation exercises.
Spirituality, Online Support Groups and Journaling for Bipolar Disorder
A multitude of studies have found those who are religious or spiritual live longer, are healthier, recover from illnesses quicker, and are less depressed. Much of this undoubtedly has to do with the support one gets from one’s religious community, as well as the more healthy lifestyles these people tend to lead, not to mention the comfort that belief in a higher power can bring. In addition, the exercises and practices associated with religion and spirituality such as meditation, prayer, and yoga have positive benefits on mental and physical health. Scientists also speculate the immune system and other biological processes may be enhanced by religious or spiritual practice. Finally, don’t rule out pure God-power.
A major study found that online support groups have a positive impact on depression. Face-to-face support groups have a similar benefit. At a support group, you meet people who have walked in your shoes, who have unique insights into the illness that they are all too happy to share and are willing to be with you in a time of crisis. In lieu of a support group, family support and support from trusted friends is crucial.
Another exercise that can help is journaling. Many people with bipolar keep a mood journal or a daily diary of their ups and downs. Mood journals can help you spot patterns to your episodes, as well as a depression or mania in the making.
Learning to cope, day by day, can be achieved over time. You will develop your own personal bag of tricks. These can range from prayer to keeping a journal to taking some time out for yourself to volunteer work. In general, any project that makes it worth your while to get out of bed or any activity that induces you to get out of the house and be with other people should be regarded as beneficial.
If You’re Unable to Cope with the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
What should you do if you’re unable to cope and you’re feeling suicidal or feeling in crisis?
Get help immediately. Treat this as a crisis every bit as life-threatening as a heart attack, which it is. Every year, one million people worldwide die by their own hand, most as a result of depression or bipolar disorder. The true figure is probably many times higher, disguised as death by accident or death by risky behavior. Contact a trusted friend or family member. In the US, the national suicide hotline is 1 800 SUICIDE. Just as someone with a heart attack goes to the emergency room, that is where you should be, unless someone competent has decided you’re not in danger.
You can prepare for a suicidal crisis by having a good support network in place, people you can contact at a moment’s notice. Have a good relationship with your doctor or psychiatrist, as you may need to call him or her in the middle of the night. Commit the national suicide hotline to memory, if you live in the US and have local hotline numbers handy.
Being supportive is one way to help others in a suicidal crisis. Don’t be judgmental. Treat the situation as life-threatening, which it is. Ask if he or she has a plan – this can determine how serious the problem is. If you are in a position to do so, offer to take positive action, such as calling his psychiatrist or driving him to the emergency room.
Bipolar disorder can ruin your life, destroying your relationships and your career. It’s pointless to disregard the full destructive power of bipolar disorder. Because of it some people may have to considerably scale back their expectations in life. On the positive side, you’ve survived one of the most malevolent forces on the planet and you’re a much stronger person as a result, in closer touch with your own humanity and divinity. Please don’t underestimate these gifts and the power you now have to lead an even deeper and more meaningful life, however different it may be from the one you had been pursuing.
Some final thoughts about bipolar disorder are that it may be one of the worst illnesses we know; and, the treatments may leave a lot to be desired, but you’re not powerless. Learn everything you can and apply your knowledge to fighting this illness with everything you’ve got, with every weapon available. Measure personal success on your own terms, not on society’s. Simply living with this illness is a major achievement, so give yourself credit. To those who haven’t sought out help, please do. As imperfect as the treatments are, they offer you an excellent chance of winning back your life. To people still struggling with their treatments, don’t abandon hope. New medications are hitting the market all the time, and we are getting smarter every day about using the current medications and natural treatments. You may be the next beneficiary.
Psych Central. (2006). Lifestyles of People with Bipolar Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/lifestyles-of-people-with-bipolar-disorder/000614
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.