Many people with bipolar disorder consider natural and alternative treatments. Let’s look at the research behind some herbs people use for this condition.
For many people living with bipolar disorder, herbal supplements can be a helpful addition to a traditional treatment regimen.
Herbs may be an attractive option, as they help address common bipolar symptoms that are often untreated or undertreated, such as:
These symptoms often fall outside the realm of typical bipolar medications.
Another draw is that herbs tend to have fewer side effects than many pharmaceutical drugs.
It’s important to note that some herbs people use to treat bipolar disorder aren’t supported by bipolar disorder-specific research. However, these supplements do have research-backed benefits for certain symptoms that are common in bipolar disorder, such as stress and insomnia.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb people have used for millennia in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s also known as Indian ginseng, and it may help boost cognition in people with bipolar disorder.
People use ashwagandha to help lower stress, improve stamina, and boost concentration levels.
Ashwagandha belongs to a class of medicinal herbs known as adaptogens, which essentially “adapt” to your body’s needs. These herbs help boost your body’s natural ability to handle mental, emotional, and physical stress.
Many people with bipolar disorder experience cognitive symptoms both during and after mood episodes. These impairments can take a heavy toll on your overall well-being and ability to function.
One study looked at the effects of taking a standardized extract of ashwagandha on cognition in bipolar disorder. A total of 53 participants took 500 milligrams per day of ashwagandha for an 8-week period, adding the supplement to their usual maintenance medications.
As a result, participants experienced significant benefits in three tests of cognition.
The researchers suggest that ashwagandha may help improve auditory-verbal memory, reaction time, and social cognition. It also appears to have a solid safety profile with few potential side effects.
Many people with bipolar disorder experience anxiety and insomnia between mood episodes and even after their primary symptoms are under control.
Valerian is a medicinal herb that people have used as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. It’s considered a nervine, a type of herb used to help the nervous system.
Research suggests that valerian may be able to help with these symptoms, as the herb appears to act on GABA receptors in the brain to reduce anxiety and insomnia.
Side effects appear to be minimal and may include daytime sleepiness at higher doses.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a lemon-scented nervine in the mint family. It may also address symptoms related to anxiety, memory, and insomnia, which may occur between episodes.
People have used lemon balm for centuries in traditional medicine as a mood enhancer, an astringent, and a fix for nervous headaches, among many other uses.
Research indicates that lemon balm may enhance memory and well-being in some people.
One report showed that a single dose of the herb improved memory function and created a feeling of calmness in healthy participants. When combined with valerian, lemon balm was also shown to reduce test-induced anxiety.
Overall, researchers suggest that lemon balm may have potential to treat mild anxiety and insomnia in people with bipolar disorder.
While it’s been shown to have a positive effect on anxiety, some experts warn against using rhodiola in bipolar as it can trigger manic episodes in some people.
Rhodiola is not recommended for people taking antidepressants or monoamine oxidase inhibitors because it can cause serotonin syndrome. This is a cluster of side effects you can experience if high levels of serotonin build up in your body.
Symptoms of serotonin syndrome may include:
- rapid heartbeat
- dilated pupils
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is another ancient nervine that people have long used to treat anxiety, insomnia, menstruation issues, and burns. Passionflower may act on GABA receptors in the brain and is considered an effective stress reducer.
It’s thought to affect depression indirectly by helping reduce stress, which can be a factor that leads to depression. Thus, it’s possible that it may help relieve depressive episodes because of its stress-reducing properties.
Overall, researchers suggest that passionflower may have the potential to alleviate certain psychiatric symptoms, including stress reactivity, insomnia, and anxiety.
American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is another nervine that can help relieve stress and tension. This herb affects your mood by acting on GABA receptors in the brain.
American skullcap has strong antioxidant effects and may help protect against neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Similar to valerian and lemon balm, skullcap may help reduce feelings of anxiety and insomnia.
There’s not enough evidence on the effects of skullcap in people with bipolar disorder, or on manic or depressive episodes in particular. Scientists need to delve more deeply into these topics.
The following supplements are nutritional supplements, not herbs, but are worth mentioning due to promising evidence regarding bipolar disorder. These supplements have shown positive results in the treatment of bipolar disorder symptoms.
- Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. The anti-inflammatory properties of fish oil have been shown to reduce depression. In bipolar disorder, omega-3 fatty acids exert a significant improvement in symptoms, according to
- Certain amino acids. L-taurine, L-theanine, L-tryptophan, and L-tyrosine may be helpful in bipolar disorder.
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). This is the main antioxidant in the brain.
Researchfrom 2008 suggests that NAC may help with depressive symptoms. More research is needed in this area as subsequent (and shorter) studies did not show the same effects. NAC also protects the kidneys from toxicity due to lithium, a common medication for bipolar disorder.
- St. John’s wort — may also cause phytotoxicity or serotonin syndrome, especially in people using antidepressants
- ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- brindleberry (Garcinia cambogia)
- ma huang (Ephedra sinica)
Regulation of herbal supplements
Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the dietary supplements they make are safe, including herbal supplements like the ones we list above. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t screen them for safety and effectiveness.
That’s because the
However, the FDA does require manufacturers to label their dietary supplements accurately according to labeling regulations. The organization will take products off the market if they’re found to be unsafe or if the manufacturer makes claims about them that are misleading or false.
Thus, you can’t be certain an herbal supplement is safe, effective, or contains what the label says it does.
Consider choosing supplements that have been tested by a well-known third-party organization, such as:
- U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP)
- NSF International
The supplements should say so on the label.
Herbal supplements are a helpful option for many people living with bipolar disorder. You may find they work well as a complementary treatment to your traditional treatments. However, they don’t replace regular treatment for bipolar disorder.
It’s important to note that bipolar symptoms vary widely, and what works for one person may not work for another.
Many of these herbs work well because they affect the neurotransmitter systems in your brain. Because of this, it’s wise to use caution when taking them — just as if you were trying a new medication.
Consider speaking with a licensed healthcare professional before trying a supplement to assess possible risks, medication interactions, and the correct dosage. Some herbs can interact with current medications or trigger undesired effects in some people.