Understanding how sleep, diet, exercise, and nutritional supplements affect the mind will make living with bipolar disorder easier.

Sleep

Regular sleep habits benefit bipolar people. Going to bed early and at the same time every night assures enough sleep, and bipolar brains need more sleep. Manic episodes can be triggered simply by staying up for a late movie! A vicious cycle of disruption and sleep deprivation leads to extremes, eventually resulting in deep depression that can last for days or weeks. Tools to thwart insomnia when it does occur are important. Over the counter diphenhydramine causes drowsiness and is not habit forming. Melatonin is a natural sleep hormone that helps set normal body rhythms. Several herbs and amino acids, when used properly, also offer good results.

Herbs

  • Try only one herb at a time.
  • Valerian root has properties that are similar in structure to valproate (Depakene), a medication which raises GABA in the brain. GABA is a calming and regulating neurotransmitter, a substance that is deficient in bipolar brains.
  • Kava kava and skullcap also raise GABA by drug-like actions.

Amino Acids

  • GABA is an amino acid, available at healthfood stores.
  • A tablespoon or two of vinegar taken before meals will also raise GABA levels, but only for a short time. GABA regulates the brain’s levels of glutamate. Too much glutamate causes insomnia and a racing brain. Too little glutamate is associated with groggy feelings and lethargy characteristic of depression.
  • Taking glutamine counteracts the effect of glutamate. An irritable feeling or sugar cravings can be treated with glutamine.
  • Theanine has a similar effect. It is responsible for the calming effect of tea.
  • Taurine is an amino acid that is also helpful to some during manic episodes.

Minerals

Minerals can make a big difference in your mental state.

  • Calcium is also thought to raise GABA levels through the signaling mechanisms of ion channels in the brain, though it will also raise glutamate levels and dopamine levels. High dopamine levels are associated with delusions and hallucinations.
  • Magnesium counteracts the effects of calcium on glutamate. Take calcium when feeling groggy to achieve a more alert and extend attention span. Take magnesium if sleep is needed.

Meditation

A study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(4): 419-426, concluded that yoga practice increased GABA levels by 27%. For bipolar brains, regular yoga practice and meditation are vital to well-being. Other forms of exercise may also raise GABA levels.

 

Good Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to nerve and brain function but they can be hard to obtain in a normal diet. Good sources are coldwater fish oils, flax and chia seeds.

Vitamins

  • Vitamin K (highest in green, leafy, vegetables – kale, collards, spinach, parsley and turnip greens) helps the body to use excess glutamate. Vitamin B6 improves dream recall and lowers glutamate by converting it to GABA.
  • A dose of vitamin B12 will raise glutamate levels—something that should only be attempted when depressive symptoms such as brain fog and difficulty waking up are present, because it can make manic symptoms worse. Sublingual methylcobalamin is the best form, or injections of B12 can be obtained from a physician.

Diet

Gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, plays a factor in many mental illnesses. In sensitive individuals the gluten in wheat, barley, and rye cause an inflammatory response that affects many body systems, including the brain. Gluten damages the bowel, causing poor absorption of dietary nutrients. Gluten intolerance can be difficult to diagnose; trying a strict gluten free diet for several weeks or months to see if symptoms subside provides the best indication that celiac is a related issue. Although difficult, elimination of wheat and wheat products has completely reversed bipolar disorder in some severe cases.

A diet of whole foods supports brain function. Processed and junk foods rob the body of nutrients and contain synthetic colors, flavors and preservatives. Chemical sensitivity is common and frequently exacerbates bipolar symptoms. Avoid caffeine; the adrenaline it creates will contribute to feelings of anger and stress. Wean off gradually, experimenting with green or white tea only in the early morning, if you must have some. Eat plenty of fresh leafy greens and other vegetables and fruit, preferably raw, whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa, and high quality proteins such as tofu, wild caught (not farm raised) fish, plain poultry, beans and lentils, and kefir or yogurt with active probiotic cultures. The better the balance is in the body, the better the balance will be in the mind.

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When to See a Doctor

Do not stop taking prescription medications without the knowledge and advice of a physician. The strategies listed here require some self-control to implement. While they will improve health and brain function, the safety of some bipolar individuals may still depend on appropriate medication.