Produce, probiotics, and oily fish may help with bipolar disorder, while alcohol, sugar, and caffeine may affect symptoms negatively.

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For many years, people believed the brain worked alone as the “big boss,” guiding the rest of the body from up high and dictating how we feel and act. But research suggests it’s not as in control as once thought.

In the grand scheme of medicine, nutritional psychiatry — exploring how food impacts the brain and mind — is a fairly new development. However, its findings are quickly changing the way we approach looking after our mental health.

You may have heard of the gut-brain axis, and how the finely balanced microbiome of beneficial and harmful bacteria in your digestive system may affect your mood and behavior. For example, it’s believed 95% of your serotonin (the “feel-good” chemical) is produced not in your brain but in your gut.

What you eat directly influences these trillions of bacteria and, if they’re knocked off-kilter, your brain may quickly feel the effects.

As many symptoms of bipolar disorder are centered on mood and emotion, it’s little surprise that research indicates a potential link between the condition and diet.

Inflammation and immune function are thought to be key factors in this association. People with bipolar disorder have been found to have higher levels of inflammation in the brain and impaired immunity, both of which can be significantly affected by different foods.

Scans have shown that those with bipolar disorder have slightly altered brain composition, too — particularly in the prefrontal cortex, where emotions and impulses are managed. And research indicates that for the brain to function properly and maintain a healthy structure, it needs to receive a wide variety of nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants from different ingredients.

Being aware of the different foods that may exacerbate or improve symptoms of bipolar disorder may help you better manage the condition.

As is the case with our physical health, our mental well-being thrives on nutritious ingredients. Here are some that have the potential to improve symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Fruit and vegetables

Here’s another good reason to eat your greens: Hitting the daily recommended intake for fruits and vegetables may boost mental well-being by enhancing feelings of self-worth and optimism and lowering risk of depression and distress.

More specifically, in one older study, people with bipolar disorder who upped their vegetable intake experienced fewer symptoms of depression and better overall mental function.

Foods high in vitamin C

While research into the direct relationship between vitamin C and bipolar disorder is limited, vitamin C may still be of assistance — particularly as low levels of it have been linked to poor mood and cognition.

Vitamin C also quashes harmful free radicals, which roam the body and damage cells to cause inflammation, a reaction that’s linked to symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Some great sources of vitamin C include:

  • broccoli
  • orange
  • kale
  • black currants
  • strawberries

Oily fish

This type of fish is rich in omega-3s, fatty acids renowned for their heart health benefits. But they could help reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder, too.

Research has found that people with bipolar disorder often have lower levels of omega-3s in their blood, which are key to healthy brain function. Plus, some studies indicate omega-3s may help improve depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder — although findings are mixed, so further investigation is needed.

Salmon, sardines, and mackerel are packed with omega-3s, but if you don’t eat fish, you can also find it in ingredients like flaxseed and walnuts.

Chicken

You may not think much of this humble meat, but it’s packed with two compounds believed to help bipolar disorder symptoms. The first is tryptophan, an amino acid that aids in the production of serotonin, a mood-enhancing chemical many people with bipolar disorder are deficient in.

Chicken is also rich in CoQ10, a natural antioxidant that not only helps protect against free radical damage but also assists in reducing bipolar disorder-related depression, according to research.

Probiotics

While technically not a food, these live microorganisms are found in an array of ingredients and may help decrease inflammation. Plus, in one study, people with bipolar disorder who received probiotics saw a decrease in symptoms of mania and lower rates of hospitalization.

Yogurt with active cultures is one of the most popular ways to “eat” probiotics, while kefir, tempeh, miso, and sauerkraut are all good sources, too.

Research suggests that some ingredients may encourage or intensify symptoms of bipolar disorder. These are a few to watch out for.

Alcohol

Having a gin and tonic or a glass of wine may make you feel happy in the moment, but regular drinking may have longer-term effects for those with bipolar disorder.

You don’t need to be a heavy drinker, either. One older study found that low to moderate alcohol intake is associated with depression and mania. Meanwhile, another study revealed that people with bipolar disorder as well as alcohol use disorder were at significantly greater risk of manic symptoms and suicidal thoughts and behaviors than those with bipolar disorder who don’t drink.

Ultimately, the relationship between bipolar disorder and alcohol is a tricky one. It’s estimated that 40% to 70% of people with bipolar disorder will also experience alcohol use disorder.

Sugar

On average, we eat (and drink) 17 teaspoons of sugar each day — almost three times the recommended amount for adults. And too much may have a detrimental effect on mental health.

Not only has this ingredient been linked to increased inflammation in the body, but it is also a key factor behind obesity, a condition associated with more severe bipolar disorder symptoms.

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the relationship between obesity and diet is complicated. Not everyone who has obesity follows an unhealthy diet. Various factors may play a role.

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance notes that some people with bipolar disorder find that high sugar intake negatively influences their mood, while research also shows it may encourage symptoms of depression.

Fast food

It’s cheap and convenient, but fast food may be the fast track to psychological distress.

Although not specific to bipolar disorder, a large study of Californian adults found that those who consumed greater quantities of fast food were more likely to report moderate to severe mental distress. The researchers noted that this link often remained, even when adjusting for various factors, including age, race, or income.

Meanwhile, when it comes to all-important inflammation, mice fed a diet high in fat and sugar not only experienced increased levels of inflammation but also saw long-term negative changes to their immune systems. Plus, trans fats, which are often found in fried foods and pastries, have been linked to higher inflammation.

Caffeine

Too much of this stimulant is well known for getting us hyped up and causing the jitters. However, according to the International Bipolar Foundation, it may even trigger manic episodes in some people with bipolar disorder. Studies support this theory.

Some researchers suggest that this is because of the impact caffeine can have on sleep, as sleep disturbances have been shown to affect everything from mood to life quality to treatment outcomes in people with bipolar disorder.

More research is needed, but a number of studies indicate a relationship between nutrition and bipolar disorder. So aiming to lower your intake of some ingredients and increase your intake of others may be beneficial. You could even write down how you feel after eating to see if you notice a pattern between certain foods and symptoms.

In addition to specific ingredients that may ease signs of bipolar disorder, research indicates that the very low-carb, high-fat keto diet may be advantageous. A review analyzing anecdotal evidence noted it may help stabilize mood and lower the incidence of depression.

Still, it may be best to speak with your treatment team before switching up your diet completely and following a strict regimen like the keto diet.

Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that nutritional switches aren’t an alternative to traditional treatment approaches for bipolar disorder, such as medication and therapy.

Getting good sleep, eating a balanced diet, and enjoying regular exercise are important elements of self-care that can help manage the peaks and troughs of bipolar disorder, so speak with your doctor about adopting potential measures for a brighter outlook.