For some people with bipolar disorder, life can feel like a roller coaster you can’t get off. It typically involves cycling between manic symptoms, which can include impulsive behavior, irritability, and anxiety, and depressive ones, which can mean sadness, emotional numbness, or a weak appetite for food or life.
Even if it feels like the ride is never-ending, conventional and alternative treatments can help lessen those climbs and drops. These days, there’s a lot of evidence to support the use of natural remedies and therapies to ease bipolar symptoms, especially depressive ones.
But before you kick your meds to go all-in on mindfulness meditation, always talk with a health pro. Often, these remedies are best used in addition to — not as a replacement of — your usual treatment.
With that in mind, here’s the deal on some natural remedies out there that just might work.
Many of these methods are still in the beginning stages of having enough research to back them up as absolute bipolar-disorder-busters, but what we do have looks promising.
1. Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT)
Many people with bipolar disorder may have a difficult time practicing moderation and maintaining a regular routine. That’s where IPSRT comes in. The therapy aims to help participants develop a more consistent schedule in every aspect of life, from sleeping to eating and working out.
In a 2014 study involving 100 participants with bipolar disorder, people who received IPSRT for 26-plus weeks had reduced symptoms of depression and mania and improved social functioning. Even though this is a pretty small sample size, the results look promising.
2. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
Moving your eyes from side-to-side sounds like a weird way to treat mental health conditions, but there’s a ton of research to suggest it works.
Under supervision from a pro, the therapy involves recalling traumatic events while moving your peepers in a specific pattern. According to another 2014 study, people with bipolar disorder who practiced this therapy for 24 weeks had a statistically significant improvement in symptoms of hypomania, trauma, and trauma impact compared with the group that didn’t practice this therapy.
While EMDR has been used for decades to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers more recently found a lot of promising evidence that it can also be used to treat various psychiatric conditions.
3. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
While any type of counseling is likely to help you out if you have bipolar disorder, research suggests that CBT is especially beneficial.
In a 2017 research review involving more than 1300 people with bipolar disorder, researchers concluded that CBT could lower relapse rate, improve depressive symptoms, reduce mania severity, and increase psychosocial functioning.
Researchers called these improvements “mild to moderate.” People who attended therapy sessions longer than 90 mins appeared to experience the most drastic improvements.
Another 2017 research review suggested that mindfulness-based CBT could be even more effective, but we need more research to know for sure.
4. Light therapy
If you have bipolar disorder, you might be more likely to have a slightly skewed circadian rhythm, which basically means your biological clock doesn’t work as well as it can.
While there are various ways to address this, a 2022 research review suggested that “chronotherapeutic” techniques based on circadian rhythm organization, like light therapy, can be particularly useful. The therapy involves timed exposure to periods of light and darkness and regimented sleep and wake times, which may sync you up more solidly to the good ol’ sun and moon.
Researchers point out that while antidepressant drugs result in “extremely low success rates” for treating bipolar disorder, when combined with chronotherapeutics, outcomes are much better.
Inhale peace, exhale all your probs. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration — but the science does suggest that meditation can have a positive impact on your mental health.
In a 2013 study, participants with bipolar disorder who meditated for 12 weeks reported lower depression and anxiety levels compared with the control. More than 3 days of meditation/week was associated with more profound improvements.
Mindfulness meditation has also been linked to increases in white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, aka the part of the brain associated with executive attention, which is typically impaired in people with bipolar disorder.
When in doubt, sweat it out. OK, maybe running isn’t the miracle cure your marathon-obsessed friend swears it is, but there *is* a lot of evidence to suggest exercise can balance your mood and offer a number of health benefits.
Meanwhile, a 2016 research review involving people with bipolar disorder found that regular exercise was associated with decreased depressive symptoms, improved functioning, and led to a better quality of life. So far, there’s not a lot of research that says working out can ease manic symptoms. But doing yoga, Pilates, or hitting the gym def seems to be promising for targeting those lows.
Going full porcupine just might help keep your depressive symptoms at bay.
According to a 2019 research review, acupuncture seems like a solid complementary treatment to usual antidepressant treatment. Various studies showed that acupuncture led to clinically significant reductions in depression severity compared with usual care, antidepressants, and placebo.
That being said, there’s not much research so far to suggest that acupuncture can treat bipolar disorder in particular. But in addition to your usual care, it may help soothe your low cycle symptoms.
8. Omega-3 fatty acids
More mackerel, please.
According to 2015 research, adding about 300 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids to your diet seems to help aid in mood regulation. It doesn’t mean you should skip out on therapy for some supplements, though — researchers point out that it’s best used to enhance results of your existing treatment plan.
A 2016 research review also pointed out that so far, omega-3 supplementation can be most effective at treating depressive symptoms by way of regulating neurotransmitters in your noggin. We need more research to know its efficacy for psychiatric conditions like bipolar disorder, though.
That being said, it still might be worth adding some salmon, sardines, or supplements to your life.
9. Certain herbs
- St. John’s wort. It’s often used to manage moods. Still, the research on it is pretty mixed. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says it could help with depression, but could also cause psychosis. Plus, it could interact with bipolar disorder meds, so don’t try this without supervision from a health pro.
- Rhodiola rosea. This plant has been used for years to help manage stress and depression. Though the research on whether it works is pretty weak, it also doesn’t have any serious known side effects.
- Cannabis. There’s limited research to suggest that cannabis could help treat bipolar disorder, but there’s also evidence to suggest it could actually cause more manic and depressive symptoms in some people. What about CBD and bipolar disorder, you ask? Early research scoping out that connection won’t be out until late 2022.
Research suggests that natural and alternative treatments like meditation, light therapy, and omega-3 supplements are pretty helpful in treating bipolar disorder, especially when it comes to depressive symptoms.
Before trying these out, though, talk with a healthcare pro and keep your counselor or therapist in the loop. Together, you can find a regimen that incorporates natural methods and works for your unique needs.