Bipolar Disorder and Nutrition

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC on March 9, 2016Written by Anthony Watt on January 17, 2012

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by dramatic mood swings between mania and depression. These “mood episodes” can range from mild to severe. They can develop gradually over several weeks, or they can occur suddenly over a few days. The mood episodes are often accompanied by changes in thinking, behavior, and energy levels.

Managing bipolar disorder takes a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and healthy lifestyle habits. One of the most important lifestyle habits is following a nutrient-rich diet.

How Nutrition Affects Bipolar Disorder

A healthy diet provides your body and brain with the nourishment it needs to function properly. This helps to reduce the severity and frequency of mood episodes.

It also helps to prevent or reduce weight gain, a common problem of bipolar disorder. Weight gain often complicates recovery. It can stem from depressed episodes or emerge as a side effect from medications used for treatment. A recent study found that up to 68 percent of people seeking treatment for bipolar disorder are overweight or obese.

While numerous factors can contribute to weight gain, the biggest factor is believed to be serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical messenger in the brain that affects appetite, mood, and other critical body functions. It’s widely thought to be at lower levels in people with mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder. A serotonin deficiency can trigger cravings for carbohydrates and sweets. Eating these foods can increase your serotonin levels. The result may be a brief boost in mood at the cost of additional pounds.

These cravings can manifest in binge eating as well. A 2013 study found that nearly 10 percent of people with bipolar disorder also have a binge eating disorder. This rate of binge eating is much higher than in the general population. The study also revealed that people with bipolar disorder are more likely to be obese. They’re also more likely to have other health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and anxiety.

While some extra pounds may accompany bipolar disorder, following a healthy, nutritious diet can help keep weight gain under control.

How Nutrition Works

Your body needs certain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to work efficiently. Many of these substances help the brain and nervous system to work properly and transmit information effectively. You obtain most of these nutrients through healthy foods, such as a fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins.

In addition to fueling the body, vital nutrients play a role in stabilizing mood. Some vitamins and minerals have been linked to improved mood. Deficiencies have been associated with more severe and frequent mood swings. This is why it’s critical for people with bipolar disorder to eat a healthy diet of nutrient-rich foods.

Blood sugar levels can also affect mood. Eating lots of high-sugar, low-nutrient foods can cause dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar levels. These fluctuations can lead to changes in mood. Limiting or avoiding junk food and sweets is beneficial for everyone. But it’s especially important for people with bipolar disorder. The same can be said for other mood-altering substances, such as alcohol and caffeine. Using them in moderation or not at all can help manage mood and improve overall health.

Bipolar Disorder and Diet

There’s no specific diet for people with bipolar disorder. However, it’s important to make smart choices when it comes to food. Follow these tips when making changes to your diet:

Eat Nutritious Foods

Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods can stabilize mood, stave off weight gain, and prevent illness. Your diet should largely consist of:

  • fresh fruits, including apples, berries, and bananas
  • dark, leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale
  • legumes, such as beans, lentils, and peas
  • whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals
  • lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, and certain cuts of pork
  • cold-water fish, such as salmon and cod
  • low-fat cheese and milk
  • pro-biotic yogurt
  • eggs
  • green tea
  • nuts, especially almonds and walnuts
  • seeds, including chia seeds and pumpkin seeds
  • dark chocolate (70 percent cacao or higher)

While eating certain foods is important, eating at regular times throughout the day is just as critical. Keeping a regular eating schedule is a key factor in improving mood. Ideally, you should eat every three to five hours to keep your blood sugar levels stable. You can also help stabilize blood sugar by eating a protein and carbohydrate at every meal.

For example, you may want to consider eating a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread for lunch and baked chicken with brown rice for dinner. Combining lean proteins with carbs helps to slow digestion and improve the absorption of nutrients.

Certain supplements can complement your nutritious diet. One recommended supplement is a vitamin-B complex supplement that includes B-6, B-12, and folic acid. These essential vitamins may play a role in the production of brain chemicals that help regulate mood. Vitamin D is another supplement that can help stimulate mood-boosting chemicals in the brain.

Eliminate the Bad Stuff

You should also eliminate the following foods from your diet:

  • red meat
  • white flour
  • processed foods
  • high-sugar foods
  • high-fat foods
  • desserts and candy bars

Avoiding these foods is critical for improving your overall health. You will be at a much lower risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other serious medical conditions. It’s also important to limit your consumption of caffeine and alcohol. These substances can exacerbate symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Food Interactions

Make sure to consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet. People with bipolar disorder need to follow certain dietary restrictions if they’re taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). These are a particular class of antidepressant medication.

MAOIs can cause potentially life-threatening conditions if certain foods are ingested. People taking MAOIs must adhere to a strict diet that eliminates foods containing tyramine. These foods include:

  • cheese
  • aged meats
  • red wine
  • tap beer
  • overly ripe bananas

Additional food-related issues could arise, depending on the medication you’re taking. It’s important to find out what restrictions you need to follow when starting any drug treatment. Consult your doctor or a nutritionist to find out more.

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