Treating Bipolar Disorder with Marijuana: Is It Safe?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC, CASAC on April 8, 2016Written by Traci Angel

Bipolar disorder and marijuana use

If you have bipolar disorder, you may be looking for a way to help you manage your condition. People with bipolar disorder experience extreme emotional highs and lows. You may be wondering whether medicinal marijuana, which people take to treat other medical conditions, can help with these mood swings.

Some research associates marijuana use with a decrease in psychotic threshold, which is the point at which someone transitions into active psychotic symptoms. Other research suggests it may make your symptoms worse. Researchers have also found that using marijuana can lower the age at which a person begins experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

The symptoms that you may experience can vary depending on what type of bipolar disorder you may have.

If you’re experiencing a manic episode, you may:

  • have an unsettled mind
  • be easily distracted
  • feel rested even after just a little sleep
  • have a high level of confidence
  • have an inflated sense of self

If you’re experiencing a depressive episode, you may:

  • feel sad most of the day, on a daily basis
  • lose or gain weight
  • be unable to sleep
  • sleep more than is necessary
  • feel tired
  • lose focus easily

What are the types of bipolar disorder?

People with bipolar disorder experience a mix of emotional highs and lows. Your mood swings may be as frequent as a few times per week. These mood swings may also occur a few times per year. The types of mood swings can also depend on if you have bipolar 1 disorder, bipolar 2 disorder, or cyclothymic disorder.

Bipolar 1 disorder

You must have had at least one manic episode for your doctor to diagnose you with bipolar 1 disorder. Manic episodes can interfere with your day-to-day life. You may need hospitalization during a manic episode. This episode may occur before or after a hypomanic episode or a major depressive episode. Hypomania is less intense than mania, but it can still affect your routine activities and interactions.

Bipolar 2 disorder

You must have had at least one major depressive episode for your doctor to diagnose you with bipolar 2 disorder. This episode must last two weeks or more. You must have also experienced a hypomanic episode. This hypomanic episode should last four or more days.

Cyclothymic disorder

You must have experienced hypomanic and depressive symptoms on and off over the course of two years for your doctor to diagnose you with cyclothymic disorder. The symptoms must occur at least half the time.

Can marijuana use cause bipolar disorder?

What causes people to have bipolar disorder is unknown, but certain factors may be involved. Researchers suggest the following possibilities:

  • a chemical imbalance in the brain
  • a physical difference in the brain
  • a genetic link, such as having a relative with the disorder

In recent years, researchers have studied whether marijuana use could cause psychiatric disorders. One study found that although marijuana can’t cause certain psychiatric disorders, it can mimic the effects of such a disorder. This includes schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. With this in mind, the study went on to cite marijuana use as a risk factor for developing a psychotic or mood disorder.

Other risk factors can include:

  • a sudden trauma or death
  • stress for an extended amount of time
  • substance abuse

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?

If you suspect you or a loved one has bipolar disorder, your doctor can conduct some tests to be sure. A physical exam can help your doctor assess any underlying conditions. These tests could include a psychological exam. This exam is about sharing your thoughts, feelings, and habits.

They may ask you to explain your symptoms or why you wish to be tested. They may also ask you to keep a journal charting your moods, behaviors, and life events. This can help your doctor identify possible triggers.

How is bipolar disorder treated?

If you’re diagnosed with bipolar disorder, your doctor will create a plan of action for you. Your treatment options may include:

  • psychotherapy involving interpersonal, behavioral, or social rhythm therapy
  • medication, such as mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications
  • certain lifestyle changes, such as a planned exercise regimen or sleep schedule

What is the outlook?

If you stick to your treatment plan and work with your doctor, you should be able to keep your symptoms at bay. Drinking alcohol or engaging in recreational drug use, such as taking marijuana, can have a negative effect on your treatment plan and worsen your symptoms.

If you’re looking to alleviate your symptoms, consider joining a support group. You can connect with others who may be experiencing similar situations.

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