I used to have a college roommate with bipolar disorder. I didn’t know he had it when we first moved in, but after a few months I realized there were massive fluctuations in his behavior. There were periods of time where he experienced high bouts of energy, and then the very next day he would be extremely depressed—he would literally sleep for days.
Bipolar disorder is a tricky condition to figure out. It can be difficult to diagnose, but treatment is often just as tough. There are, of course, pharmaceutical treatments to regulate moods, but when used solely, they can be ineffective for many suffering from the condition. The best treatment for bipolar is a multifaceted one. The truth is that you likely can’t treat the condition entirely without medication—but there are lifestyle factors and alternative treatments that are effective complements to medication.
For example, diet and exercise can play a key role in naturally treating bipolar disorder, reduce manic and depressed episodes, and improve general quality of life. Before we go further into treatment options, let’s first take a look at what causes bipolar disorder and how diet and exercise play a role in treating it, as well as some other options that can help you treat bipolar disorder without medication.
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder might be a lot more common than you believe. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it affects about 5.7 million American adults per year. Those who suffer from it experience intense mood swings resulting in very high “highs” and at the opposite end of the spectrum, very deep “lows.” When experiencing a high, the individual is classified as being “manic,” or in a state of mania, and when in a low they are in a period of deep depression.
Racing thoughts, an exaggerated sense of self, excitability, reckless behavior, overindulgence, reduced sleep, and increased irritability are all symptoms of someone in a manic state. You might not be able to convince them they are wrong, they may have all kinds of unrealistic expectations, and they may approach life with an intensity that seems otherworldly. On the other hand–and sometimes only a few days after such a period–the same person may feel extremely sad or lonely; have very low self-esteem; experience guilt, fatigue, and anxiety; or find themselves unable to get out of bed.
What’s important to note is that these extremes must be out of character from “normal” behavior. After all, some people might walk around with a lot of energy and self-assuredness all the time; it’s simply who they are. These people, who do not experience the extreme lows, are therefore not bipolar.
The causes of bipolar disorder are not fully understood, but it’s believed that genetic and environmental factors play a role. Therefore, your surroundings can trigger bipolar episodes, while it can also be something you’re born with. People who have parents who are bipolar, for example, are more likely to have the disorder. There is also a very strong correlation between cases of bipolar disorder and those who abuse drugs and/or alcohol.
Diet and Exercise to Treat Bipolar without Drugs
There are a number of natural treatments that can help manage bipolar disorder, but the best place to start is with diet and exercise. It might sound a little too simple, but the truth is that what you do and what you eat every day can play a role in symptom flare-ups, mood regulation, and helping you deal with the highs and lows that are a staple of bipolar disorder. The more you can do to stay on an even plane, the greater quality of life you can have. When it comes to bipolar disorder, consistency is something to aim for.
Exercise offers a powerful natural treatment for bipolar disorder. It has benefits for both manic and depressive states, and does a great job regulating mood and sleep patterns, boosting endorphins, and providing a way to stay focused and use energy.
When a person is depressed, exercise can make them feel better. Physiological changes happen during and immediately following exercise that produce hormones responsible for improving mood. You may have heard of runner’s high, for example. Runner’s high is a feeling of euphoria brought on by a release of endorphins in the brain. A form of long, continuous aerobic exercise can have this effect.
If you don’t have the time or desire to go for a long bike ride, jog, swim, or other form of aerobic activity, you can also try resistance exercise. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that supports the theory that weight training boosts self-image, confidence, and overall feelings of self-worth.
Sometimes just getting outside for a walk is all you might need. Getting the blood moving around can also improve mood. Exercise is especially valuable during times of depression, because it provides something to look forward to, a sense of accomplishment, and can create a routine, which is very important for people with bipolar disorder. Furthermore, it can increase waking hours by stimulating energy.
On the other hand, during manic periods, exercise can help provide an outlet for excess energy while encouraging sleep, which is typically in short supply during manic episodes.
In addition to combatting the feelings of stress and anxiety, exercise is a highly recommended means of treating and managing bipolar disorder. Trying to get some form of exercise every day, whether it’s from a walk or run, weight training, Pilates, swimming, or bike riding, can help you keep your mood in check while encouraging healthy lifestyle habits, like improved sleep.
Although there is no evidence that a specific diet is effective for treating bipolar disorder, there are some that contend that a ketogenic diet (high fat, high protein, and very low-carb) can help, but evidence is far from conclusive.
What is recommended, however, is to eat a nutrient-dense diet that’s relatively low in processed and sugar-laden foods. Aside from the well-known health risks like heart disease, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and obesity, sugary food can cause hormonal fluctuations, resulting in highs and lows that can exacerbate symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Foods with tyramine (an amino acid that helps regulate blood pressure) can cause problems, but mainly if you’re taking medication to treat the condition. Foods high in tyramine are:
- Overripe bananas and banana peels
- Draft beer
- Fermented cheese
- Aged meats
- Certain wines, like Chianti
- Soy sauce
Caffeine can also trigger manic and depressive episodes, so try to limit intake of chocolate, coffee, energy drinks, some teas, and other caffeinated items. As mentioned earlier, there is a strong link between alcohol and bipolar disorder, so trying to limit drinking is also important. Remember, alcohol is a depressant and it can be a powerful catalyst to a depressive episode.
Because your brain is largely made up of fat, I can see why a ketogenic diet makes theoretical sense, but in practice it is not always effective. However, it is recommended you try to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and primarily DHA, which is found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements. Fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout are good options.
However, if you have bipolar you’ll probably need to get more DHA than you will from a couple of servings of fish per week, so supplementation is recommended. Try starting off at two teaspoons of a supplement (that has at least 500 mg of DHA), but talk to your doctor about increased dosing if needed.
Lifestyle Changes for Bipolar
Making some lifestyle changes in addition to diet and exercise are also ways to naturally treat bipolar disorder. Routine can help stabilize mood, so scheduling your day can have a big help in preventing major mood swings. Some of the areas with noted benefit include:
1. Sleep schedule and strong sleep hygiene
Sleep scheduling is of the utmost importance to people with bipolar disorder. Because manic states often leave them short on sleep and depressive ones leave them sleeping too much, a regular sleep schedule can help keep them on track. Getting to bed and waking up around the same time each day is highly beneficial, and is best accomplished by practicing good sleep hygiene. Set a bedtime and stick to it, while making sure the last waking hour before bed is spent without any screens on, or emotional/stimulating activity. A warm bath, shower, or reading are all recommended. Also, keep televisions, computer, tablets, and cell phones out of the bedroom.
2. Daily routine to keep focus
Getting up at the same time every day and keeping to a schedule can limit manic and depressive episodes. Staying occupied can keep the mind from wandering, so try and schedule regular daily events. These can be simple things like eating breakfast, exercising, reading, or grocery shopping at set times throughout the day. The more you have to do, the easier it is to stay on track.
3. Mindful meditation
Along with exercise, periods of mindfulness and meditation can help calm nerves, ease anxiety, and create balance and inner peace. Prayer and meditation can help you focus your energy and attention in productive ways, while encouraging regular sleep.
Additional Natural Treatments for Bipolar Disorder
Diet, exercise, and pharmaceutical treatment are not the only answers for bipolar disorder. There are other techniques and treatments that can work well in conjunction with these measures:
There are various therapeutic techniques offered by specialists to help people deal with bipolar disorder. It is very effective in most cases, and can be an excellent complementary treatment to lifestyle and pharmaceutical options. Conducted in a group or individual sessions with a psychologist, some various forms of psychotherapy include cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal/social rhythm therapy, and psychoeducation.
A couple of dietary supplements might work to aid in bipolar disorder management, such as omega 3 fatty acids and N-Acetyl cysteine (a derivative of the amino acid L-cysteine). Oral supplementation may help ease depressive symptoms.
3. Light therapy
Light therapy can help during depressive periods, but may induce mania. It’s best to talk to your doctor about your specific case before purchasing a light box and trying light therapy.
Keeping Bipolar Disorder in Check Naturally
Natural treatments and lifestyle components play a big role in the management and regulation of bipolar disorder. Although medication might still be necessary, you have the power to treat bipolar disorder naturally by using exercise, diet, and other beneficial lifestyle adjustments.
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Sources for Today’s Article:
Kunz, M., “Exercise for Bipolar,” Livestrong.com, September 7, 2015; http://www.livestrong.com/article/83677-exercise-bipolar/.
Thomson, D., et al., “A brief review of exercise, bipolar disorder, and mechanistic pathways,” Frontiers in Psychology, 2015; 6: 147.
“Bipolar Disorder and Foods to Avoid,” WebMD web site; http://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/guide/bipolar-diet-foods-to-avoid, last accessed October 2, 2015.