To Medicate or Not to Medicate, That is the Bipolar Question

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was told that I had a chemical imbalance that required medication to treat. The doctor’s explanation seemed to make sense to me at the time. I definitely knew something was wrong with me—I had been living on an emotional rollercoaster for over two years and I needed help.

For the following decade I proactively went to every psychiatric appointment and took every medication my doctors prescribed but became progressively worse. My nightmare culminated in a massive breakdown in 2008 when I was hospitalized three times in a two-month period, received electroconvulsive (shock) therapy which triggered psychosis–and was put on medications that triggered three suicide attempts.

Medication wasn’t helping me; it was making things worse.

When I read social media posts that insist medication is necessary to treat bipolar–comparing bipolar medication to insulin for diabetics–I think back to my experience with medication and know it is not true. 

Yes, the symptoms of bipolar are frightening, and we all want solutions. The reality is, bipolar is not a chemical imbalance and it cannot be cured with drugs. In fact, drugs often make the condition worse, as my experience bears out.

The truth is that bipolar symptoms are just that, symptoms—an indication that the mind and body are in distress. Over the past thirty years there has been a rapidly growing body of research indicating the underlying causes of bipolar symptoms and providing effective treatments that resolve the symptoms

Medications do not treat the cause of the bipolar symptoms. They attempt to mitigate the symptoms by messing with the brain chemistry and if used long-term could do serious damage to both the brain and body, which is why 83% of people treated with medication for bipolar will become severely impaired and will die on average 8-12 years earlier than the rest of the population.

If medication isn’t the best long-term treatment for bipolar symptoms, what is?

Micronutrition

The research of Dr. Bonnie Kaplan and Dr. Julia Rucklidge connects micronutrient deficiencies to symptoms of mental illness, including bipolar. In their book The Better Brain they explain::

“Our brains demand a disproportionately large amount of the nutrients we consume…most Americans don’t know that the brain metabolism responsible for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine is dependent on an ample supply of micronutrients.”

I discovered this for myself when I found a micronutrient treatment for bipolar disorder called EMPowerPlus from a company aptly named Truehope. Studies confirm it is three times more effective in treating bipolar symptoms than psychotropic drugs. Why is this so? Because while medications are attempting to treat the symptoms, the micronutrients are addressing one of the primary causes of the symptoms—micronutrient insufficiency.

It is important to note that not all supplements are the same. In fact, in their book Drs. Kaplan and Rucklidge indicate that there are only two micronutrient treatments that have been proven effective at treating bipolar and other mental illnesses. EMPowerPlus has had 35 independent clinical trials done across the United States and Canada proving its efficacy.

When I went through the process of cross-titration (titrating off of the medications and onto EMPowerPlus) I experienced some pretty nasty withdrawal symptoms—exhaustion, confusion, depression. Then one day, several months into the process I woke up one morning and felt like I was fully awake for the first time in over a decade. Over the following years my brain continued to heal as I worked with Truehope’s customer support to optimize my micronutrient intake. 

I have been off of medications for over thirteen years and my brain feels healthier and more balanced than ever before!

WARNING: If you decide to switch from medication to micronutrients DO NOT go off of medication “cold turkey” or stopping all at once. Medication alters your brain chemistry and withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous, even life-threatening. DO work closely with someone specifically trained in cross-titration—either Truehope customer support or a trusted psychiatrist who has been specifically trained in cross-titration—to safely withdraw from the drugs and transition to the micronutrients that will help heal your brain.

Unhealed Trauma

Another underlying cause of bipolar symptoms is unhealed trauma which can lead to emotional dysregulation, unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, as Dr. Bessell van der Kolk noted in his book The Body Keeps the Score, diagnosing someone with a mental illness like bipolar disorder doesn’t “begin to meaningfully describe who these patients are and what they suffer from.”

Trauma should be treated through effective therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Rapid Resolution Therapy (RRT), Internal Family Systems (IFS), among others. This enables you to 

  • heal the deep emotional wounding caused by trauma, 
  • re-regulate your emotions, and
  • learn to interact with the world in a healthy way—eliminating this as a source of bipolar symptoms.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation—ironically referred to often as an “alternative treatment”—has been around for thousands of years. Over the past fifty years, however, it has become the subject of rigorous research and study. A treatment that has grown out of this research is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). In their book Mindfulness: An Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World Dr. Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman share that MBCT is:

“…at least as effective as antidepressants, and has none of their downside. In fact, it is so effective that it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.”

Mindfulness addresses two of the sources of bipolar symptoms: antidepressants and negative, intrusive thoughts. 

Antidepressants are a leading cause of bipolar symptoms; nearly forty percent of people put on antidepressants will develop manic symptoms. In addition, sixty percent of people with bipolar disorder were initially diagnosed and treated for depression. 

When I was struggling with bipolar symptoms my emotions were heavy and my mind was trying to make sense of it by going through the “files of my mind” looking for a reason to explain the darkness. This resulted in a barrage of negative, intrusive thoughts that made my mind a horrible place to be. I developed coping mechanisms to try and escape my mind, which caused anxiety because I couldn’t handle my life.

Mindfulness meditation taught me how to stay present in my mind and body. It helped me learn how to sit with uncomfortable emotions and experience them without judgment. That skill halted the spiral and helped me become friends with my mind again.

To Medicate or Not to Medicate

When you are making the decision whether to treat your bipolar symptoms with medication ask yourself, what is your goal? Do you want to put a band aid on the symptoms and try to learn to cope with them or do you want to heal and live a healthy, balanced, productive life?

Bipolar is not a “disorder”—a disease that you will live with for the rest of your life. It is a group of symptoms that are indications that your brain and body are in distress. You can learn to listen to what your brain is trying to tell you and give it what it needs to heal by using a research-based, integrated treatment plan that addresses the underlying causes of your symptoms.

What choice will you make?

The Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part Two: What is Bipolar, Anyway?

Continued from The Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part One: Three Bipolar Myths

When the bipolar diagnosis was first created it was done in hopes of finding a “magic bullet” treatment to cure what was thought to be a disorder. Since psychiatrists were unable to identify the underlying cause of the symptoms people presented, they developed a diagnosis based solely on symptoms. Over time, as people did not fit into the categories they created, the diagnostic parameters were expanded.

The reason bipolar has become chronic and incurable is the treatment model. Instead of investigating the underlying causes of symptoms, psychiatrists prescribe psychotropic medications that “muck up” normal brain function which compounds the problem.

Misdiagnosed?

When I share with people that I have healed my bipolar I am told that I must have been misdiagnosed. So, I ask you to consider this question: What constitutes an accurate diagnosis?

From the time of my initial diagnosis I met all of the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder 2—I cycled between periods of severe depression and hypomanic episodes. I was treated by at least seven separate psychiatrists due to moves and hospitalizations. Each doctor affirmed my diagnosis. When I experienced my first psychotic episode, my diagnosis was changed to bipolar 1. 

On the website for the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) it states that the exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown. However, it is not true that the root cause of symptoms is still unknown. The following are three of the most common causes of bipolar symptoms.

Micronutrient Insuficiency

During the 1990s, Dr. Bonnie Kaplan was doing research into the connection between micronutrient deficiency and the symptoms of mental illness. She tested a specialized micronutrient treatment formula from a nonprofit in Canada called Truehope and found that the bipolar patients in the study showed significant improvement on the treatment.

Dr. Kaplan and a colleague Dr. Julia Rucklidge continued to do research in the field and wrote The Better Brain outlining their findings:

Our brains demand a disproportionately large amount of nutrients we consume. . .Most Americans don’t know that the brain metabolism responsible for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine is dependent on an ample supply of micronutrients. . .We now know that there are many people with underlying risk factors, often genetic, that may make them more vulnerable to emotional distress when their diet is poor. Improve and fix their nutritional needs, and many of them can and will get better. —Dr. Bonnie Kaplan and Dr. Julia Rucklidge

The founding of Truehope itself was in direct response to one founder’s desperate search for an effective treatment for two of his children who were suffering from bipolar and medication was failing them. You can read more about this extraordinary discovery here.

As our diets in our society have become poorer and soils more depleted of nutrients, the number of people being diagnosed with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, has skyrocketed. 

Trauma

One of the great tragedies of the label bipolar “disorder” for people who have a history of trauma is that it makes them feel helpless to heal. The idea that you have a disease that must be treated with medication makes you feel like there is something wrong with you that can only be fixed by drugs.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, talks about how severe trauma, especially in childhood, causes emotional dysregulation and adaptation as the brain tries to protect you to help you survive. The symptoms are indications that the brain and body are in distress. Instead of masking the symptoms with medications, you need to identify the cause to facilitate healing:

Many psychiatrists today work in assembly-line offices where they see patients they hardly know for fifteen minutes and then dole out pills to relieve pain, anxiety, or depression. Their message seems to be ‘Leave it to us to fix you; just be compliant and take these drugs and come back in three months’. . .Our increasing use of drugs to treat these conditions doesn’t address the real issues: What are these patients trying to cope with?  —Bessel van der Kolk

Antidepressants

Strangely, use of antidepressants is now known to be a common cause of bipolar symptoms. Someone goes to a psychiatrist because they are struggling with depressive symptoms and they are put on antidepressants. After being put on antidepressants, they develop manic symptoms. The doctor then tells the person they were misdiagnosed and actually have bipolar disorder. Sadly, doctors do not realize or acknowledge that psychotropic drugs are what caused the manic symptoms.

In his book Anatomy of an Epidemic investigative journalist Robert Whitaker identifies research showing that nearly forty percent of people put on antidepressants will develop manic symptoms. In addition, sixty percent of people with bipolar disorder were initially diagnosed and treated for depression. None of these people started out with a chemical imbalance, however when they are placed on psychotropic medications the drugs cause a chemical imbalance in the brain.

In a 1993 practice guide to depression, the APA confessed that ‘all antidepressant treatments, including ECT [electroconvulsive therapy], may provoke manic or hypomanic episodes.” —Robert Whitaker

WARNING: Do not ever attempt to stop taking psychotropic medications cold turkey (stopping suddenly). This can be VERY DANGEROUS, even life threatening, due to effects of drug withdrawals. 

Physical versus Mental Illness

I frequently see people online suggesting that bipolar is a real, physical illness, just like diabetes. However, we don’t treat them the same. If you went to the doctor with symptoms of diabetes, he or she would not automatically assume you have it and then start you on insulin—that would be dangerous and irresponsible! The physician would run tests to identify the underlying cause of the symptoms before prescribing a treatment.

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis of bipolar disorder is describing symptoms, not the cause.

It is possible to uncover what gave rise to symptoms of mania and depression. Then by following a research-based treatment plan that addresses the source of symptoms it is possible to heal!

Continue to Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part Three: The Steps to Heal Your Disorder