Can You Treat Bipolar Disorder Without Medication?

Can You Treat Bipolar Disorder Without Medication?

Euphoric highs. Debilitating lows. The ups and downs of living with bipolar disorder can be so challenging. But is medication the sole solution?

Although prescription medication can be helpful and may be necessary in some cases, it is not the only way to address bipolar disorder, which affects roughly 5.7 million Americans. This complex brain disorder—which is associated with dramatic changes in moods, energy, and activity levels—does not have just one single cause. Instead, multiple risk factors contribute to the condition. Addressing these risk factors with nondrug therapies and lifestyle changes can be powerfully effective in managing symptoms of bipolar disorder. Before exploring these natural strategies, it’s necessary to understand the risk factors for bipolar disorder.

Note: If you are currently taking medication for bipolar disorder, do not stop taking it without speaking to your healthcare provider first.

Researchers have been working for decades to uncover the underlying causes of bipolar disorder and have discovered a variety of physical, emotional, psychiatric, and lifestyle factors that may increase risk. Among them are the following:

Looking closely at some of these risk factors has revealed the following methods of treatment that involve no medication at all.

Emotional trauma experienced in childhood and periods of extreme stress (such as the death of a loved one, disability, or divorce) trigger the body’s built-in fight-or-flight stress response (also referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis). In normal circumstances, when the stress response is triggered by a threat, real or perceived, the HPA axis ensures a swift response through the release of stress hormones. When the threat has passed, the stress response turns off.

Yet studies have shown that trauma and extreme/chronic stress keep the HPA axis turned on. Constant firing of the stress response can cause HPA axis dysfunction, which increases the risk for bipolar disorder and/or bipolar episodes. Research suggests that targeting HPA axis dysfunction is one strategy to improve the outcomes of bipolar disorder, and the following non-drug options are aimed at doing just that.

The stress response and stored memories of trauma can be addressed with therapeutic techniques. Research indicates that cognitive behavioral therapy may help to reduce symptoms of emotional trauma, as well as reverse the underlying biology of the disorder within the brain.

Additionally, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a special psychotherapeutic technique, has been shown in studies to be an effective treatment for people who have been emotionally traumatized.

Of course, stress reduction offers another potential line of treatment as it calms the stress response. The following activities reduce stress markers in the body:

Adding to bipolar disorder’s complexity, it’s common for those affected by it to have co-existing substance abuse problems, mental health issues, or medical problems. Co-occurring conditions can exacerbate manic and depressive episodes. One study examining nearly 400 bipolar cases found as many as 69% abused alcohol and up to 60% abused drugs. Cannabis use was identified in a 2015 review as a risk factor for bipolar disorder that may cause or exacerbate manic episodes. Some medical experts believe that substance abuse can also lead to changes in the brain that may contribute to the development of bipolar disorder.

There are numerous mental health disorders that present with bipolar disorder as well. A study in Clinical Psychology found that 62% of those with bipolar disorder also meet the clinical criteria for ADD/ADHD. Anxiety disorders, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobias, eating disorders, and some personality disorders are also seen with bipolar disorder. In children and adolescents, bipolar disorder may also co-exist with oppositional defiant disorder and other conduct disorders.

Obesity, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and asthma are examples of medical issues that are common with bipolar disorder.

Whether it is substance abuse, another mental health disorder, or a medical issue, bipolar disorder and/or the episodes can be avoided or reduced by properly addressing these co-occurring conditions. Seek the proper professional care and commit to making the lifestyle changes necessary to resolve them.

If you’ve had a head injury, you’re at higher risk of developing bipolar disorder, according to a 2016 review. In fact, one study found that people with a prior TBI were 28% more likely to develop bipolar disorder.

If you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and have experienced a head injury or suspect you may have had a concussion in the past, have your brain examined. At Amen Clinics, brain SPECT imaging reveals that many people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder have signs of undetected traumatic brain injury. Interestingly, head trauma can cause many of the same symptoms seen in bipolar disorder. In either case, healing the brain can be beneficial in decreasing the symptoms.

You can help heal your brain and address bipolar disorder symptoms by adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle. This includes healthy nutrition, regulated sleep, moderate exercise, lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements, and helpful forms of therapy, including neurofeedback which has been shown to be beneficial in healing brain injuries in a 2017 study.

Disturbed sleep may affect or trigger bipolar episodes. An ongoing study, following 1,100 individuals with bipolar disorder found that a lack of quality rest appears to impact the severity of manic and depressive episodes, particularly in women with the condition. Dysregulation of the sleep/wake cycle (circadian rhythms) can exacerbate manic and depressive episodes in those affected by bipolar disorder as well.

Practicing healthy sleep habits and incorporating methods shown to regulate the sleep/wake cycle are excellent ways to keep bipolar disorder in check. Sleep tips include powering down digital devices at least an hour before bed; keeping the same sleep/wake times; avoiding caffeine and alcohol, which can disturb sleep; listening to a relaxing meditation before bed; keeping your room cool and dark. Supplementing with melatonin can help reset the sleep/wake cycle especially when traveling through different time zones.

A growing body of evidence is showing that mood disorders may be related to changes in the gut microbiome. A recent study following bipolar patients discharged from hospitalization for manic episodes showed a significantly lower incidence or rehospitalization after taking probiotics for 24 weeks than those who did not.

Supporting a healthy microbiome by eating plenty of prebiotic foods (inulin fiber-containing foods that feed the good bacteria in your gut such as garlic, leeks, asparagus, and bananas) and fermented foods (foods containing healthy bacteria such as kimchi, yogurt, and kefir) is another way to reduce the risk of bipolar disorder episodes. Taking probiotic supplements can help too, as well as following a brain-healthy diet with loads of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and lean meats.

Although there is no cure for bipolar disorder, it is highly treatable and can be managed effectively, especially if every lever of treatment is pulled. Of course, a treatment plan should be tailored to the individual under the care of a medical professional.

Bipolar disorder and related mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact pagehere.

Images Powered by Shutterstock