Someone with bipolar disorder — formerly known as manic depression — typically experiences extreme shifts in mood and energy levels. These shifts alternate between periods of feeling extremely upbeat, elated, or energized (called a “manic” or “hypomanic episode”) and feeling deeply sad and hopeless (called a “depressive episode”).
Many treatments — such as medication and psychotherapy — can help manage the symptoms of this mental health condition. Certain lifestyle strategies, such as eating nutrient-rich foods, can help people with the condition stay well, too.
Of course, a healthy diet is not a substitute for standard treatments. However, it’s still important for people with bipolar disorder because they are prone to deficiencies in certain essential vitamins and minerals, such as various B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids , which may be at least partly related to a poorer diet, according to a systematic review published in May 2022 in Nutritional Neuroscience. These deficiencies can affect a person’s overall health and make symptoms of bipolar disorder worse.
Another reason nutrition is important is because obesity is prevalent among people with bipolar disorder, in turn putting them at higher risk for potentially life-shortening health conditions like diabetes , high blood pressure , and heart disease , according to a review published in April 2018 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
This is because medications used to treat bipolar disorder can make it difficult for people to feel full and satisfied after eating, and they may eat more as a result, explains Melvin McInnis, MD, who is the Thomas B. and Nancy Upjohn Woodworth Professor of Bipolar Disorder and Depression, and the director of the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“Choosing healthier foods, such as whole grains, produce, and fish, can mean that when people with bipolar disorder eat extra helpings, they are eating healthier foods,” Dr. McInnis says.
If you have bipolar disorder, filling your plate with these nutritious foods can help you maintain or achieve a healthy weight while delivering additional mood and overall health benefits:
1. Whole Grains
Whole grains are thought to help increase the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood and behavior, says April Hackert, RDN, a California-based psychiatric culinary medicine dietitian who specializes in nutrition therapy for people with mental health conditions.
Whole grains also are rich in fiber , which helps control your weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is especially true if you eat foods high in soluble fiber — a type found in oats , legumes , avocados , broccoli, carrots, nuts , and many fruits. That’s because soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance in the stomach that slows digestion and keeps you feeling fuller longer after eating.
In addition, fiber — both soluble and insoluble types — helps reduce your intake of fat and cholesterol, improves your gut health, keeps you regular, and helps keep your blood pressure under control.
If you haven’t included many whole grains in your diet, add them in gradually. Suddenly increasing your intake can trigger bloating and cramping, according to experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
A good place to start is with oats, whether in oatmeal, granola, muffins, or pancakes. “They can be easier on the stomach for people who aren’t used to the fiber of whole grains in their diet,” says Hackert.
It’s hard to beat the sweetness — and the nutritional profile — of a mango, making them an excellent food for people with bipolar disorder. According to Hackert, mangos are especially rich in:
- Folic acid, which may help stabilize mood
- Fiber, which, as already noted, has many health benefits
- Potassium, which may help reduce drug side effects
Mangosteen fruit, a cousin of the mango, may help inflammation in the brain among people with bipolar disorder, which may be associated with improved symptoms if used alongside standard bipolar treatments, according to a study published in March 2019 in Frontiers in Psychiatry.
3. Citrus Fruits
Lemons , oranges, and other citrus fruits contain folic acid (aka folate or vitamin B6), a nutrient that plays a key role in the development of neurotransmitters , chemical messengers that have a direct impact on thoughts, memory, and feelings, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Although researchers don’t know exactly why, people with bipolar often have lower than normal levels of folic acid in their systems, according to a review of six studies, published in October 2019 in BMC Psychiatry.
Citrus fruits are also rich in vitamin C — another vital nutrient with many important functions, including having a positive impact on mood, according to Mayo Clinic experts.
Snacking on citrus fruits, or simply adding lemon and lime to other foods you eat, are great ways to help keep up your levels of folate and vitamin C, Hackert says. However, check with your doctor before consuming grapefruit or grapefruit juice since it can interact with certain medications for bipolar disorder.
4. Fish and Seafood
Many types of seafood — including salmon , tuna, cod, sardines, herring, and Atlantic mackerel — are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These nutrients may help with brain signaling and also decrease oxidative stress, a type of chemical damage that can harm the brain, says Hackert.
Omega-3 deficiencies are common among people with bipolar disorder, according to a review published in March 2020 in the Global Health Journal.
What’s more, a study published in the March 2022 issue of the journal Bipolar Disorders linked a diet high in omega-3s and low in omega-6s (found in sunflower, safflower, soy, sesame, and corn oils) with fewer shifts in mood, energy, irritability, and pain. And according to Harvard University experts, omega-3s may be beneficial for depressive symptoms among people with bipolar disorder.
RELATED: What Are the Benefits of Fish Oil for Bipolar Disorder?
5. Nuts and Seeds
Several types of nuts and seeds — including walnuts, Brazil nuts, and sunflower seeds — contain the brain-friendly nutrients folate and selenium. A study published in January 2015 in the Journal of Nutrition suggested that, in general, optimal selenium levels in the body are linked to improved mood and fewer depressive symptoms among young adults.
In addition to helping lift mood in some people, selenium helps keep your organs healthy and your overall physical health in check, says Hackert.
Portability is a key benefit of nuts and seeds, making it easy to carry around a handful in a purse or pocket to eat as a snack, she adds. Nuts and seeds (including spreads like almond butter or tahini) have the added benefit of being packed with fiber.
6. Root Vegetables
Many root vegetables — including beets, squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes — deliver a host of nutrients, including:
- Vitamin C
According to Hackert, the nutrients found in many root vegetables are especially good at improving blood flow to the brain. This could be helpful since several studies, including one published in the December 2022 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, suggest increasing circulation to the brain may help improve depressed mood in people with bipolar disorder.
Although avocados are not low-cal, they’re packed with fiber and healthy, unsaturated fats, a combination that can suppress hunger for hours, according to a study published April 2019 in the journal Nutrients. They also provide niacin and omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that help the brain function at its best, says Shebani Sethi, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
Avocado can be easily sliced and added to salads or sandwiches made with whole-grain bread. On the run? Consider snacking on guacamole in single serve packages found in the supermarket refrigerator case paired with a single-serving package of whole grain crackers, suggests Hackert.