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What Causes Bipolar Disorder and can it be Treated?

Friday 17 April 2020
Mental Health

Table of contents


I. What Causes Bipolar disorder?

a. Genetics

b. Environment and Lifestyle

II. What Can Be Done to Treat Bipolar disorder?

a. Mood stabilizers

b. Antipsychotic and antianxiety medications

c. Antidepressants


What Causes Bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a medical condition that can lead to dramatic mood swings. These mood swings can be so severe that they can prevent people from functioning normally at work and in their personal lives. [1] Bipolar disorder was previously called manic depression because symptoms were major episodes of mania and depression.

We still do not know the exact causes of bipolar disorder. However, today doctors have a better understanding of the causes of bipolar disorder and medications like Abilify (aripiprazole) can help control symptoms. Researchers believe that bipolar disorder is caused by a mixture of genetics and environment and lifestyle issues. [2]

a. Genetics

Experts think that bipolar disorder is a result of problems in the circuits of the brain and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). There are three chemicals in your brain that are involved in brain and bodily functions. These are serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. Serotonin and noradrenaline have been linked to psychiatric mood disorders, including bipolar disorder. Serotonin affects body functions, including sleeping, eating, learning and sexual activity. [2] Noradrenaline affects the way your brain responds to events. [3]

Many studies have shown that bipolar disorder can run in families. For example, studies have shown that if one identical twin develops bipolar disorder, the chance of the other twin developing it is over 40 percent. Another research study showed that children who have a parent with bipolar disorder have an increased chance of having a psychiatric disorder. These include bipolar, major depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Model of the inside of the brain

b. Environment and Lifestyle

Environment and lifestyle also affect the severity of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder. Environmental factors can trigger bipolar episodes. [2]

Bipolar disorder typically begins during adolescence or early adulthood. Although it can begin as soon as early childhood or as late as your fifties. [4]

Drug and alcohol abuse does not cause bipolar disorder. However, some substances may trigger a manic or depressive episode or worsen existing episodes. Substance or alcohol abuse can also trigger psychosis. A person may have to recover from addiction and stop  the use of drugs and  alcohol before a doctor can diagnose bipolar disorder. 

Manic or depressive episodes may be triggered by very stressful life events. This can include moving to a new place, losing a job or experiencing the death of a loved one. Traumatic events during childhood, such as neglect or abuse can lead to a higher chance of developing bipolar disorder later life. [5]

People who have bipolar disorder may be more likely to have problems with their sleep cycle. [2] Hard-working students, shift workers or people with jetlag may be more at risk of an episode. Sleep loss may trigger a mood episode of mania. [6] Once someone enters a manic episode, their need for sleep decreases even more. Worrying about losing sleep can also create anxiety, which can worsen a bipolar episode.

Woman asleep on train during daytime

Roughly 20 percent of people with bipolar disorder can show signs of mood swings when the seasons change. It is more common to have manic or hypomanic episodes during spring and summer and depressive episodes during winter.[6]

What can be done to treat Bipolar disorder?

There is no cure for bipolar disorder. However, the treatment success rate for bipolar disorder is 80 percent. Diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder as soon as possible is important. This can reduce future lapses and hospitalizations. When diagnosing bipolar disorder, an evaluation may include a physical exam and a psychiatric assessment. Your doctor may also ask you to complete a record of your moods and sleep patterns to help with diagnosis.

There are many prescription medications that can be used to treat bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder requires lifelong treatment even during periods of feeling well. Skipping medication can lead to a relapse of symptoms and can turn minor mood changes into full-blown manic or depressive episodes. [7] Finding the right medication or medications for a person may require patience and may take a while to identify. Many medications can take months to take full effect. Medications may need to be adjusted as symptoms change or if you develop side effects.

medicine tablets split into organizer

Most bipolar medications fall into the following categories:

a. Mood Stabilizers

Mood stabilizer medications are the most common long-term treatment to prevent bipolar episodes. These medications are used for both mania and depression. Mood stabilizer medications can decrease symptoms of depression and can improve symptoms during episodes of mania, hypomania or mixed episodes. By taking mood stabilizers for life, around one in three people with bipolar disorder will be completely free of symptoms. Common mood stabilizer medications include Depakote (divalproex) and Tegretol (carbamazepine).

b. Antipsychotic and Antianxiety Medication

Antipsychotic or antianxiety medications may be taken with mood stabilizer medications. Antipsychotic medications are used to treat symptoms of mania, including agitation or insomnia. Common antipsychotic medications include Haldol (haloperidol) and Abilify (aripiprazole). Antianxiety medications may also be prescribed to you on a short-term basis. These can help with anxiety or improve sleep.

c. Antidepressants

Antidepressant medications may be prescribed to help manage depression. Antidepressant medications should be taken alongside a mood stabilizer. If taken alone, antidepressants may cause mania or hypomania. The most effective antidepressants to treat bipolar fall into two categories: [4] Norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI) medications such as Wellbutrin (bupropion) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) such as Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline).

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.