The highs and lows of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by shifts in mood, such as varying highs (known as mania) and lows (known as depression). Mood-stabilizing medicines and therapy can help manage these changes in mood.

Making a few changes to your diet is another potential way to help manage manic episodes. Although foods won’t cure mania, choosing the right ones may make you feel better and help you better handle your condition.

Whole grains aren’t just good for your heart and digestive system. They may also have a calming effect on your mind.

Carbohydrates are thought to boost your brain’s production of serotonin. This feel-good brain chemical helps to ease anxiety and may leave you feeling more in control.

So, the next time you’re feeling a little jittery or overwhelmed, grab some whole grain crackers to nibble on. Other good options include:

The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) play an important role in your brain. They’re an essential part of nerve cells and help facilitate signaling between those cells.

Researchers continue to study whether omega-3s can help treat depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions.

So far, the results on omega-3 supplements for bipolar disorder have been mixed. Adding omega-3s to mood stabilizers does seem to help with symptoms of depression, although it doesn’t have much effect on mania.

Because omega-3 fatty acids are healthy for your brain and heart in general, they’re worth incorporating into your diet. Cold-water fish contain the highest levels of this healthy nutrient.

Other good food sources include:

Tuna, halibut, and sardines are also rich sources of selenium, a trace element that’s essential for a healthy brain.

Research has found that selenium helps to stabilize mood. Selenium deficiency has been linked to depression and anxiety.

Adults need at least 55 micrograms (mcg) of selenium daily, which you can obtain from foods such as:

Turkey is high in the amino acid tryptophan, which has become synonymous with the sleepy feeling that comes over you after Thanksgiving dinner.

Aside from its supposed sleep-inducing effects, tryptophan helps your body make serotonin — a brain chemical that’s involved in stabilizing your mood.

Elevating serotonin might help during depressive episodes. There’s also some evidence that tryptophan can improve mania symptoms.

If you want to try tryptophan but aren’t a big fan of turkey, you’ll also find it in foods such as eggs, tofu, and cheese.

What do black beans, lima beans, chickpeas, soybeans, and lentils have in common? They’re all members of the legume family, and they’re all rich sources of magnesium.

Early research suggests that magnesium may reduce mania symptoms in people with bipolar disorder. More research is still needed to confirm whether magnesium-rich foods improve mood.

In the meantime, adding fiber- and nutrient-rich beans to your diet is unlikely to hurt. Beans may make you gassy when you first increase them in your diet, but that diminishes if you continue to eat them.

Almonds, cashews, and peanuts are also high in magnesium. In addition to research that suggests it’s positive effect on mania, magnesium helps to calm an overactive nervous system and plays a role in regulating the body’s stress response by keeping cortisol levels in check.

Nearly half of Americans don’t get enough magnesium in their diet, and this deficiency may affect their stress levels as a result. The recommended daily intake for adults is 400–420 milligrams (mg) for males and 310–320 mg for females.

The human gut is teeming with millions of bacteria. Some live harmoniously with us, while others make us sick.

This gut microbiome is hot in research right now. Scientists are trying to better understand how the healthy bacteria promote health and immune function, including reducing inflammation. People with depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation.

Increasingly, researchers are finding that these types of bacteria that reside within us help control the state of our emotional health. Some bacteria release stress hormones such as norepinephrine, while others release calming chemicals such as serotonin.

One way to tip the balance in favor of healthy bacteria is by eating probiotics — foods containing live bacteria. These include:

Chamomile has been used for centuries as a folk remedy for upset stomach, anxiety, and insomnia. Preliminary research suggests that a chamomile extract can also help relieve depression and anxiety.

Although this hasn’t been proven, if you find that sipping on something hot soothes your mind, it can’t hurt to drink some chamomile tea.

Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food — and dark chocolate is particularly calming. Nibbling on an ounce-and-a-half of dark chocolate daily may help lower stress, according to a 2009 study.

Learn which ingredients to look for when shopping for dark chocolate.

This red, thread-like spice is a staple in dishes from India and the Mediterranean. In medicine, saffron has been studied for its calming effect and antidepressant properties.

Some studies have found saffron extract to work as well against depression as antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac).

Not all foods make you feel better. When you’re feeling wired, certain foods and beverages can rev you up even more, including those that are high in caffeine or alcohol.

Caffeine is a stimulant that can produce jittery feelings. It can amp up your anxiety levels and make it harder for you to sleep at night.

You might think alcohol will take the edge off a manic episode and relax you, but having a few drinks can actually make you feel more on edge. Alcohol can also cause dehydration, which can negatively affect your mood. It can also interfere with medications.

Some foods don’t pair well with medications for bipolar disorder. If you take monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), avoid tyramine. MAOIs can cause levels of this amino acid to spike, which could lead to a dangerous rise in blood pressure.

Tyramine is found in:

  • aged cheeses
  • cured, processed, and smoked meats
  • fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi
  • soybeans
  • dried fruit

Also limit high-fat and sugary foods, especially those that are refined or processed. In addition to being unhealthy overall, these foods can lead to weight gain.

Research finds that extra weight can make bipolar disorder treatment less effective.

Ask your doctor whether you need to avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice. This citrus fruit is known to interact with many different medicines, including ones used to treat bipolar disorder.

Certain foods might help calm your mind, but they’re no replacement for your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan.

Don’t make any changes to your regular therapy without talking to your doctor first. Instead, consider adding mood-friendly foods to your diet to complement your other treatment strategies.

Make sure to ask your doctor about any foods you should avoid that may interact with current medications.