Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition in which the afflicted individual experiences episodes of mania, or extreme elation, and depression. These severe mood swings can result in serious consequences. They may even require psychiatric hospitalization.
Living with bipolar disorder requires lifelong maintenance and professional treatment. This can make it difficult for people to live normal and stable lives. Sometimes, bipolar disorder or the treatments used for the condition may cause negative long-term effects on the body. Keep reading to learn more about these effects.
What is bipolar disorder?
People with bipolar disorder experience extreme mood swings. No one knows what causes the condition, but there are certain factors that might trigger bipolar episodes. These include:
- genetics and family history
- changes in the brain’s biochemistry
- environmental factors, such as sudden or extreme stress
Those who suffer from bipolar disorder may also have different chemical messengers between nerve cells in the brain.
There are four types of mood episodes associated with bipolar disorder:
- hypomania, a milder version of mania
- mixed episodes, a combination of mania and depression
This means that bipolar disorder can manifest differently in each person who suffers from it.
Living with bipolar disorder
Manic or depressive episodes can cause many changes to the body and psyche. These include:
- long periods of feeling hopeless or helpless, or having low self-esteem
- a decreased amount of energy
- an inability to concentrate or to make simple decisions
- changes in daily habits, such as eating and sleeping patterns
- agitation or feeling slowed down
- suicidal thoughts or attempts
Additionally, people with bipolar disorder are at higher risk for other physical ailments, including:
People with bipolar disorder are also more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders or abuse alcohol or other drugs.
There are many ways to treat bipolar disorder. Medication, therapy, self-advocacy, and outside support are some of the more commonly used treatments. Each person with bipolar disorder will have a unique treatment plan, but the use of prescription medication is very common.
Bipolar medications and their side effects
Your doctor will determine if medication is necessary when you receive a bipolar disorder diagnosis. Everyone has different genetic wiring, and therefore may respond differently to specific medications. You should work with your doctor to find the right medication and dosing.
Lithium is one of the most frequently prescribed medications for bipolar disorder. That is because it works on your brain as a ‘mood stabilizer.’ It can help control for both mania and depression, and it can reduce symptoms of mania within two weeks of starting it. Lithium comes with several side effects, however. These may include:
- sedation or confusion
- loss of appetite
- diarrhea and/or vomiting
- eye pain or vision changes
- fine hand tremors
- a frequent need to urinate
- excessive thirst
In the long term, lithium may also cause rare kidney problems.
Taking lithium alone is considered a monotherapy. Researchers in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry suggest that alternatives to lithium are needed because of its frequent side effects and use as a monotherapy. According to the article, lithium on its own is not a good long-term treatment for bipolar disorder.
Beyond mood stabilizers like lithium, a doctor may prescribe other types of medication to treat bipolar disorder. These include:
- antipsychotics such as olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel XR), aripiprazole (Abilify), and risperidone (Risperdal)
- combination antidepressant-antipsychotics
- antianxiety medications
All of these medications can have an impact on the body. For example, side effects of antipsychotics can include:
- muscle spasms
- involuntary movements
- dry mouth and/or sore throat
- weight gain
- increased glucose and lipid levels in the blood
It is common for people with bipolar disorder to want to stop taking their medications because of these side effects. However, the progress individuals make in successfully living with bipolar disorder is often reliant on taking medications consistently.
When to talk to a doctor
If you have bipolar disorder, being vigilant about your mental health status and treatment plan is important. Check in with your doctor frequently, including for counseling therapy and medication assessment. Family, friends, and doctors can often recognize if a person is entering a bipolar episode and encourage medical help.
If you are bipolar and concerned that your medication is causing adverse side effects, you should speak with your doctor about your treatment plan. You should also call your doctor if you feel you may be experiencing a manic or depressive episode. Sometimes, adjustments will need to be made to your treatment plan.