We know that a healthy diet is a great way to prevent some physical diseases. A diet filled with processed foods or high sugar content put you at risk for heart disease, type II diabetes, obesity and cancer. Being overweight on its own actually increases your risk for cancer. So much attention is paid to how our diet affects our physical health, but there isn’t a whole lot of press on how it can affect our mental health. For people with bipolar disorder, our mental health is something we have to focus on constantly. It turns out that focusing on a healthy diet not only increases your health physically, but can actually help decrease bipolar disorder symptoms.
Metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease are particularly pervasive. If you have bipolar disorder you are almost twice as likely to have metabolic syndrome and your chances of dying of cardiovascular disease increase by about 10-15%. That’s nothing to scoff at.
But what is the link?
There are a few physical symptoms that are seen in higher levels in bipolar disorder than the general population. These symptoms can actually be affected by what kind of food you eat. These include:
- Lower neurological chemical functions: Low-protein, high-carb diets slow down the electric activity responsible for serotonin and dopamine. When these and other neurotransmitters are out of sync, it can exacerbate bipolar symptoms.
- Inflammation: Dairy, sugar, processed wheat products, alcohol and trans-fats/saturated fats can all cause inflammation throughout the body. This can exacerbate bipolar symptoms
- Oxidant/Antioxidant imbalance: Basically, your body doesn’t have enough antioxidants to flush out toxins. Also, if there is an overload of antioxidants in the brain, oxygen levels are affected. The brain uses ⅕ of the oxygen in your body, so there needs to be plenty there to use.
- Insufficient building and maintaining of the nervous system: High-calorie intake and high fat consumption can slow down the mechanism that maintains and creates neurons in the nervous system. When this affects parts of the brain associated with bipolar disorder, it can worsen symptoms.
So we know what happens when we eat poorly, but what do we do about it? Develop a new normal.
That’s a lot easier said than done. I recognize that. Believe me, I fight with it every day. It’s especially hard for those of us with eating disorders. At that point, food is not fuel. Food is a drug that is either to be avoided at all costs or something we binge on as a coping mechanism. About 5% of bipolar patients suffer from an eating disorder on top of dealing with all the other symptoms bipolar disorder brings. In these cases, the focus needs to be on the eating disorder itself and is something that needs a personalized plan between you and your doctor.
For those who find it easier to ease into new habits, here are a few tips to try and curb any symptoms that may be exacerbated by what you’re eating:
- Eat less processed food. This is probably the biggest factor. Processed foods contain a lot of added sugar, which increases inflammation and can lead to depressive symptoms. Too much processed food can also lead to metabolic syndrome.
- Eat small meals throughout the day, not just one large meal per day. People with bipolar disorder are more likely than the general public to eat just once per day. This can cause blood sugar imbalance. When your blood sugar is low, you’re more likely to make poor decisions about what you eat. You’re also more likely to overeat.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veg are the best places to find antioxidants to help clean out your toxins and help your brain breathe.
- Eat more fish. Fish are high in omega-3’s which can help alleviate bipolar disorder symptoms. If you’re not a big fish person, edamame, flaxseed oil, enriched eggs and walnuts are good alternatives.
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Photo credit: Erin Nekervis