Alternative Therapies for Bipolar Disorder

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on September 27, 2022
4 min read

If you have bipolar disorder, the best treatment usually is a combination of medication and talk therapy. But many alternative or complementary therapies also may ease the symptoms of this lifelong condition and make you feel better.

In fact, good nutrition, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and other steps may help prevent relapses.

Eat healthy foods. We know that omega-3 fatty acids are important for your brain to work right. And researchers have found a link between low levels of vitamin D and B vitamins in people with depression. They also think that eating a well-balanced diet may benefit people with bipolar disorder by giving you a better sense of control of your life. So eat a variety of foods, including whole grains, lots of fresh produce, lean meats, and salmon, tuna, and other fish with heart-healthy fats. Ask your doctor if you should take supplements.

Get enough sleep. This can be a challenge with bipolar disorder. You may sleep very little during a manic phase and barely get out of bed when you’re depressed. Lack of sleep can trigger a mood change. Getting enough ZZZs help both your mental and physical health.

A type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy may help with insomnia and lower the number of episodes of mania.

You may sleep better if you:

  • Aim for 8 hours and go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Keep your room comfortable and dark.
  • Avoid screen time before turning in and instead take a bath, read, or do other relaxing activities.
  • Avoid large meals close to bedtime.

Get moving. Studies show exercise may ease your depression symptoms, improve your quality of life, and help you carry on with your day-to-day routine. But exercising too often or too hard may lead to mania. More research is needed to better understand the role of physical activity in bipolar disorder.

These are also called complementary or alternative therapies that you can add to traditional treatments such as medication.

Meditation. This may calm and relax your mind and can boost your concentration, lower your blood pressure, and curb anxiety.

Studies suggest that combining a meditation practice with cognitive-based mindfulness therapy (CBMT) can improve your depression symptoms and make you less anxious. Doing just CBMT can help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression and help you control your feelings. Doing just meditation sessions may help ease feelings of helplessness or hopelessness common in bipolar disorder.

Acupuncture. This can reduce stress and improve circulation and well-being. Acupuncture is generally safe when done by an experienced professional who uses sterile needles.

Acupuncture has been studied for psychiatric disorders including depression and PTSD, but the results are mixed. More studies are needed to know if it can benefit people with bipolar disorder.

It’s usually best to get your vitamins and minerals from foods. Ask your doctor if supplements might help with your bipolar disorder.

Omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show that two specific kinds of omega-3s -- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) -- may lower symptoms of depression.

Vitamin D. A study in the Netherlands found that people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or schizoaffective disorder were almost five times more likely than others to lack enough vitamin D. Another study found that taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily improved symptoms of mania and depression in youth. Getting checked every year for vitamin D will tell you whether you have enough. The best sources of vitamin D are sunlight, fatty fish like salmon, and fish liver oil supplements.

N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). This is used by your body to build antioxidants such as vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that can protect and repair cells from damage. NAC supplements of 1 gram taken twice a day reduced symptoms of depression and improved how people function and their quality of life. NAC also improved depression symptoms in another study. But more research is needed to know for sure.

Choline, chromium, magnesium, and tryptophan. These may improve brain health and ease symptoms of mania. More studies are needed to confirm the findings.

St. John’s wort. This herb is often used to treat depression. But it’s usually not recommended for bipolar disorder because it may lead to episodes of mania. St. John’s wort also may interact with your antidepressants.

Folate/folic acid. If you take anticonvulsant drugs for your bipolar disorder, it can drop the levels of the vitamin folate in your body. But folate/folic acid supplements in turn can interfere with the effects of anticonvulsants.

Always let your doctor know about any supplements you’re taking or considering.