Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that features extreme shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels. The illness is considered quite rare — approximately 2.6% of the US population have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder¹ — and of these cases, 83% are severe¹.
There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but you may be able to manage the illness by taking medication prescribed by your doctor. However, some people report adverse side effects when they take medication to treat bipolar disorder, such as dizziness, slowed movement, and weight gain. For this reason, you might want to try non-medication methods to help ease your symptoms.
Since there is limited research about non-medication bipolar disorder treatments or evidence that they work, they are best used in addition to mainstream medicine. Consulting your doctor before trying any of these alternative treatments is very important, as some of them carry risks.
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Your doctor may suggest you take these naturally occurring supplements to help reduce your bipolar disorder symptoms.
Some studies² suggest that the fish oil extract omega-3 can help you manage the low mood symptoms of bipolar disorder. However, it’s important to note that research in this area is quite limited. While increasing your intake of omega-3 may help to alleviate your depression symptoms, there is a risk that it could trigger mania³.
If your doctor decides that omega-3 is a safe supplement for you, it's best to consume it in its natural form by eating nuts, cold-water fish, and plant oils.
A 2015 study⁴ compared rhodiola with sertraline (a common antidepressant) in treating patients with depression. Researchers concluded that the herb did not treat depression as effectively as sertraline, but it generally had fewer side effects.
Rhodiola has not been formally studied in people with bipolar disorder, and like all antidepressant treatments, there is a risk that it could cause mania. It should only be taken with medical supervision.
Research⁵ suggests that S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe) — another naturally occurring substance — may help to reduce the symptoms of depression. Once again, you must get the go-ahead from your doctor before taking SAMe as it may lead to mania⁶.
A 2018 review⁷ found that magnesium deficiency may play a role in low mood. Up to 75% of people in the US do not consume enough magnesium⁸ in their diet, so your doctor may check your magnesium levels or prescribe you magnesium supplements.
One study⁹ has shown that taking vitamin C may help to reduce the symptoms experienced during manic and depressive episodes.
Various non-medical lifestyle strategies can be implemented in your day-to-day life to help you manage your bipolar disorder symptoms and improve your mental and physical health.
Getting enough high-quality sleep can help you to manage your mood, regulate your emotions, and improve brain function. Not sleeping enough could trigger a new episode of depression or mania.
Tips for good-quality sleep include:
Going to bed and waking up at regular hours
Ensuring the room where you sleep is comfortable and dark
Avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption
Not eating a large meal before going to sleep
Avoiding or reducing screen time
Eating a nutritious and balanced diet is a good lifestyle habit for people with bipolar disorder.
A 2011 study showed that 68% of people¹⁰ who seek treatment for bipolar disorder are overweight or obese. People with bipolar disorder also have a higher risk of developing other conditions, including low bone density, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A healthy diet can help reduce the risk of these conditions.
Tips for maintaining a healthy diet include:
Maintaining regular meal times
Ensuring your diet is well-balanced and has a variety of nutrients
Planning ahead and batch-preparing meals
Taking care of your physical health through regular exercise could help make your bipolar disorder symptoms more manageable. For example, a 2015 review¹¹ of studies revealed that exercise could effectively improve symptoms when someone is experiencing a low mood episode.
Keeping active is especially important if you have bipolar disorder, as research¹² shows that patients are more likely to develop health problems like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
What’s more, bipolar disorder medications like antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers cause weight gain in some people¹³, so exercise could help you to stay healthy and counterbalance these effects.
You might find that a calming technique, like deep breathing, helps to alleviate your bipolar disorder symptoms either in a low mood or high mood episode.
If you feel able to, try some of the techniques below:
These approaches may help you manage stress (which can trigger episodes of bipolar depression and mania) and improve your mental wellbeing. While you can explore these techniques on your own, working with a trained therapist may be more helpful.
Psychotherapies are typically used together with medication to treat bipolar disorder. Some effective psychotherapies include:
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
CBT may help you cope with the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Your therapist will help you to understand what brings on an episode of depression or mania, making it easier for you to avoid triggers.
CBT may also help you to become more aware of your negative beliefs and behaviors, and develop coping mechanisms that make it easier for you to get through tough times.
Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT)
IPSRT¹⁴ may improve your mood by helping you to understand your biological and social rhythms.
As well as showing you how to develop a healthy daily routine, IPSRT helps you identify how bipolar disorder affects your day-to-day life, relationships, and social interactions. This helps you to keep up your healthy routine in the long term, reducing disruption to your life.
Bright light therapy and dark therapy are treatments that directly influence your circadian rhythm (your body clock). All animals and humans have a natural body clock that influences behavior, mood, and bodily functions, but bipolar disorder disrupts it.
A 2019 review¹⁵ shows that bright light therapy is effective in treating bipolar depression. It is thought to be particularly helpful if you have difficulty tolerating medications. However, it carries a risk of triggering mania, so should only be used with medical supervision. During a bright light therapy session, you will sit near a device that emits bright white light that simulates natural light, manipulating your circadian rhythm.
Dark therapy involves the use of amber glasses to block blue light and is a treatment for bipolar mania. Dark therapy should be avoided if you are experiencing depression.
Bipolar disorder is generally best managed with medication, but some alternative therapies may effectively help to reduce symptoms of depression and mania.
Some limited studies suggest that supplements are a useful natural remedy for bipolar disorder, while general lifestyle changes, like getting enough sleep, eating healthily, and keeping active, are widely thought to alleviate symptoms.
Types of psychotherapy, including CBT and IPSRT, are effective in helping people with bipolar disorder to manage day-to-day life. They may prevent relapses of depression and mania. Bright light therapy and dark therapy are treatments that can treat episodes of bipolar, although medical supervision is recommended.
Remember, never take any type of natural remedy or begin therapy without the guidance of your doctor as some alternative treatments carry severe risks.
Bipolar disorder | National Alliance on Mental Illness
Omega-3 fatty acids for mood disorders | Harvard Health Publishing
Bipolar medications and weight gain | Mayo Clinic