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?

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