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.