The highs and lows of bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by varying highs (known as mania) and lows (known as depression). Mood-stabilizing medicines and therapy can help control these emotional swings.
Making a few changes to your diet is another way to help manage manic episodes. Although foods won’t cure mania, choosing the right ones may make you feel better and your condition easier to handle.
1. Whole grains
Whole grains aren’t just good for your heart and digestive system. They may also have a calming effect on your mind. Carbohydrates are thought to boost your brain’s production of serotonin. This feel-good chemical helps to ease anxiety and may leave you feeling more in control.
So, the next time you’re feeling a little jittery or overwhelmed, grab some whole-grain crackers to nibble on. Other good options include:
2. Omega-3 fatty acids
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) play an important role in your brain. They’re an essential part of nerve cells and help facilitate signaling between those cells.
Researchers continue to study whether omega-3s can help treat depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions. So far, the results on omega-3 supplements for bipolar disorder have been mixed. Adding omega-3s to mood stabilizers does seem to help with symptoms of depression, although it doesn’t have much of an effect on mania.
Because omega-3 fatty acids are healthy for your brain — and your heart — in general, they’re worth incorporating into your diet. Cold-water fish contain the highest levels of this healthy nutrient. Good food sources include:
3. Selenium-rich foods
Tuna, halibut, and sardines are also rich sources of selenium, a trace element that’s essential for a healthy brain. Research finds that selenium helps to stabilize mood. Selenium deficiency has been linked to depression and anxiety.
Adults need at least 55 micrograms (mcg) of selenium daily, which you can obtain from foods such as these:
Turkey is high in the amino acid tryptophan, which has become synonymous with the sleepy feeling that comes over you after Thanksgiving dinner.
Aside from its supposed sleep-inducing effects, tryptophan helps your body make serotonin — a brain chemical that’s involved in stabilizing your mood.
Elevating serotonin might help during depressive episodes of bipolar disorder. There’s also some evidence tryptophan can improve mania symptoms.
Early research suggests that magnesium may reduce mania symptoms in people with bipolar disorder. More studies are still needed to confirm whether magnesium-rich foods improve mood. In the meantime, adding fiber- and nutrient-rich beans to your diet is unlikely to hurt. Beans may make you gassy when you first increase them in your diet, but that diminishes if you continue to eat them.
Almonds, cashews, and peanuts are also high in magnesium. In addition to research that suggests it’s positive effect on mania, magnesium helps to calm an overactive nervous system and plays a role in regulating the body’s stress response by keeping cortisol levels in check.
Nearly half of Americans don’t get enough magnesium in their diet, and this deficiency may affect their stress levels as a result. The recommended daily amount (RDA) is 420 milligrams (mg) for adult men and 320 mg for adult women.
The human gut is teeming with millions of bacteria. Some live harmoniously with us, while others make us sick. This gut biome is hot now in research. Scientists are trying to better understand how the healthy bacteria promote health and immune function, including reducing inflammation. People with depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation.
Increasingly, researchers are finding that these types of bacteria that reside within us help control the state of our emotional health. Some bacteria release stress hormones such as norepinephrine, while others release calming chemicals such as serotonin.
One way to tip the balance in favor of healthy bacteria is by eating probiotics — foods containing live bacteria. These include:
8. Herbal tea
Chamomile has been used for centuries as a folk remedy for upset stomach, anxiety, and insomnia. Preliminary research suggests that a chamomile extract can also help relieve depression and anxiety. Although this hasn’t been proven, if you find that sipping on something hot soothes your mind, it can’t hurt to sip on some chamomile tea.
9. Dark chocolate
Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food — and dark chocolate is particularly calming. Nibbling on an ounce-and-a-half of dark chocolate daily may help lower stress, according to a study in the Journal of Proteome Research. Learn which ingredients to look for when shopping for dark chocolate.
This red, thread-like spice is a staple in dishes from India and the Mediterranean. In medicine, saffron has been studied for its calming effect and antidepressant properties. Some studies have found saffron extract to work as well against depression as antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac).
Some foods to avoid
Not all foods make you feel better.
When you’re wired, certain foods and beverages can rev you up even more, including those that are high in caffeine or alcohol. Caffeine is a stimulant that can produce jittery feelings. It can amp up your anxiety levels and make it harder for you to sleep at night. You might think alcohol will take the edge off a manic episode and relax you, but having a few drinks can actually make you feel more on edge. Alcohol can also cause dehydration, which can negatively affect your mood.
Some foods don’t pair well with bipolar medicines. If you take monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), avoid tyramine. The drug can cause levels of this amino acid to spike, which could lead to a dangerous rise in blood pressure. Tyramine is found in:
- aged cheeses
- cured, processed, and smoked meats
- fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi
- dried fruit
Also limit high-fat and sugary foods, especially in refined and processed foods. In addition to being unhealthy overall, these foods can lead to weight gain. Research finds that being too heavy — especially around the middle — can make your bipolar disorder treatment less effective.
Ask your doctor whether you need to avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice. This citrus fruit is known to interact with many different medicines, including ones used to treat bipolar disorder.
Certain foods might help calm your mind, but they’re no replacement for your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan.
Don’t make any changes to your regular therapy without talking to your doctor first. Instead, consider adding mood-friendly foods to your diet to complement your other treatment strategies.