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Jun 14

Sugar and Bipolar Disorder


By Dennis Thompson Jr.
Lots of people consider a pint of ice cream the perfect cure for the blues. Others indulge in sugary snacks as a way to get an energetic high. But for people with bipolar disorder, sugar and other simple carbohydrates may harm more than help.

Carbohydrate cravings in bipolar patients are legendary, so much so that increased intake of sugary treats is considered a clue to bipolar disorder during diagnosis. People who are depressed munch on sugary snacks to make themselves feel better and then, in the throes of a manic high, mindlessly devour high-carb junk food.

The question is, should those with bipolar disorder put the brakes on sugar intake?

Bipolar Disorder: Sugar and the Brain

Blood sugar and carbohydrate intake are very important to the brain. Your brain runs on glucose and depends on carbohydrates to supply the energy it needs. But for bipolar patients, carbohydrate intake also prompts the production and release of important neurotransmitters. The body produces tryptophan, an amino acid that the brain converts into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin creates a feeling of calm and well-being and reduces depression. So people with bipolar disorder are indulging in a form of self-medication when they eat sugary snacks during depressive lows or manic highs.

Doctors believe that people use this natural reaction to try to ease their bipolar symptoms when they have depression or mania. Eating large amounts of sugar can soothe a deep depression. It also can take the edge off a manic high.

But compulsive sugar intake is not an exact form of treatment, and people who eat too much sugar may find their mood swinging wildly — a terrible prospect for people with bipolar symptoms. They also face an inevitable “crash” following the intake of simple carbohydrates like sugar. Sugary foods burn hot and fast through the body, and their effects on brain chemistry and other bodily processes tend to be immediate, intense, and abrupt.

Bipolar Disorder: Getting the Right Carbs

Bipolar patients should not cut carbohydrates out of their diet. Because they are linked to the mood-controlling neurotransmitters, carbohydrates are important to managing bipolar symptoms. Instead, swap out simple sugars in the diet for more complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates burn slow and long, ensuring a more controlled release of neurotransmitters to the brain. Complex carbohydrates are also healthier for you overall, keeping your blood glucose levels more stable and preventing the development of type 2 diabetes.

To help eliminate sugar cravings and maintain good blood sugar levels and healthy brain chemistry, you should:

Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which are rich in complex carbohydrates.
Be sure to eat enough protein, which can improve alertness without the rush of a sugar high. Lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and low-fat dairy products are good, healthy sources of protein. Poultry, oil-rich fish, baked potatoes, beans, oats, nuts, and seeds are protein sources that have the added benefit of being rich in tryptophan and can help the brain produce serotonin in a controlled, healthy fashion.

It might help to create a food and mood journal for keeping track of when you eat, what you eat, and any abrupt changes in mood you experience. These notes could hold the key to determining if certain foods are influencing your bipolar symptoms in a positive way.

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