A Cure for Bipolar Disorder?
For much of my life mood issues were the bane of my existence. I started my teens by becoming suicidal. That crushing depression lasted nearly two years, during which I somehow miraculously managed to not actually kill myself.
My early twenties brought mood swings that shifted from euphoria one moment to uncontrollable tears the next and sometimes explosive anger. By then I had a decade of experience struggling with depression and this felt worse. Depression was a familiar foe. This was extremely disorienting and I felt I couldn’t trust myself.
I stood outside the psychiatrist’s office with a Dx of emerging bipolar and an Rx of mood stabilizer wondering what now.
Yet to see me now you would have no inkling of this past. I haven’t had an episode to speak of in twelve years and have been in the best health of my life with barely a stretch of low mood in the last five years even with the upheaval of childbirth.
So what happened? Dare I say, I’m actually cured? Beyond remission, which is the usual goal. What if there was a cure for some of us?
Immediately following the diagnosis, I spent several years in therapy after which I was officially in remission. But I still had occasional blow ups and was prone to being mildly depressed much of the time and had such low energy I struggled to prepare one meal a day, which was pretty much all that was asked of me at the time.
Still, whenever I was able to, I tried to learn as much as possible about bipolar disorder.
Some of the research had fascinating tidbits that made me feel like I was looking into a mirror. Such as its connection to verbal and musical intelligence and eyes that occasionally turned outward. Even my timeline of episodes and diagnosis was fairly textbook. And here I thought I was an individual when my genes determine so much!
But treatment wise, the gist was it was a lifelong condition caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that required medication. End of story.
There were a couple of points that made me wonder though. Why was it that people with bipolar disorder had shorter life expectancies of about ten years even when we factor out those who commit suicide? Why did my episodes seem to coincide with periods of stress if it was caused by a lifelong chemical imbalance? I had no answers, but made a mental note and filed it away.
And so several years passed by in this mildly troubling state. I thought this was my lot. Just struggling to maintain day to day life. Feeling stuck and not being able to make decisions or move toward new action. I read that even in remission, those with bipolar disorder had executive functioning problems. Maybe it was that. Or lingering effects of having been depressed for so long. My brain not being able to bust out of its old habits.
Then one day, I went on the gluten free diet to support my spouse. His allergist had suggested he could try it to see if it made any difference in his lifelong gastrointestinal discomfort. Besides it would be easier to eat the same thing for two weeks than try to prepare two different versions. He didn’t feel much of a difference. I, on the other hand, was having the surprise of my life. I had never suspected I might have any food issues. If someone suggested I try it for myself I would have dismissed it without a second thought.
About a week in, I started to feel some mental clarity that was foreign to me. Along with increasing energy that made it easier to handle the extra work of trying out a new diet. I wondered if this was how normal healthy people felt.
After two weeks, it was time to try wheat again. Soon after some pasta and bread, I found myself getting irritated at the smallest things and felt my brain slow to a halt. Just the day before I was enjoying the many thoughts and ideas my brain could have but now I was stuck for an hour on whether I needed to get groceries today or not.
Now that I had experienced how life could be different I never wanted to go back to that state again. Turns out it wasn’t just my brain that had been dulled. My body started to feel when some things didn’t agree with me. I found I had multiple allergies, later confirmed through testing. For much of my life I had black out spells and severe vomiting and diarrhea that seemed to occur out of the blue. But I had no idea these were triggered by specific foods.
It was a surprise that allergies and sensitivities could cause all these mental issues. It was also a surprise that one could be unaware of even severe allergies and endure chronic suffering.
I had my brain back and my energy back. I also felt truly healthy for the first time in my life.
I had been ill on and off, sometimes seriously, my whole life. But I was surprised to find how unwell I was all the time, even when I didn’t have a specific complaint. I was just so used to it. Some of the things that disappeared when I avoided my allergens included migraines, nausea, itchiness, severe menstrual cramps, hunger pangs and dizziness, random joint pain, even mouth sores and acne.
Only after stumbling upon these through my own experience, I could go looking for these specific connections in the research and find that my case is not exactly an isolated anomaly.
There were papers on wheat and milk allergy being the cause for bipolar in at least a subset of patients. Apparently, I’m one of them. Also, with schizophrenia, which is related. There was also the paper that viewed bipolar as an illness of systemic inflammation. There is the hyper brain hyper body hypothesis, where high intelligence is associated with various mental (depression, bipolar, anxiety, ADHD) and immunological diseases (allergies, asthma, autoimmune disease). There are a lot of research and case studies on atypical or hidden and chronic presentations of allergies. Even the concept of brain allergies. Yet to look only in the books or articles on bipolar for the layperson, such information was nowhere to be found.
Hidden food allergies and sensitivities could be the cause of at least a subset of mental illnesses and various chronic illnesses. I personally experienced a dramatic difference in both brain and body. When we think of allergies we usually only think of the typical presentation, immediate hives or swelling, which is actually a small subset of allergic disease. There is a vast world of atypical and non-IgE mediated allergies for which there is no simple test available. Most of these are not immediately life threatening but can cause severe long term suffering. Arguably more problematic over the course of a lifetime than immediate IgE mediated allergies as the sufferer is much less likely to know the reason why they are always ill.
In allergies our immune system is overreacting to what is normally a harmless substance. But the medical texts at the time said that the brain is not affected by the body’s immune system, as there is no connection between the two. So what gives?
The Brain and Body Connection
My experience told me that mental illness and chronic illness are linked but I could only speculate as to how exactly that could be when there was a blood-brain barrier.
It was only in 2015 that the lymphatic vessels to the brain were found, overturning the long held notion that the brain was immune privileged. Now this knowledge, along with the study of the brain’s own immune cells, microglia, so much starts to make more sense. In a complete 180, the brain is exquisitely sensitive to the immune system. So anything that can cause the immune system to go into overdrive, whether it be pathogens, toxins, or allergens, can cause symptoms in the brain.
While my chief complaint was mood issues, I could have also presented with chronic illness with a host of symptoms whose cause was hard to find, such as ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, or possibly progress to autoimmune diseases. This may be an answer to why those with bipolar die earlier. Because we don’t only have a mental problem, we also have a host of physical problems. On the flip side, many people whose chief complaint is chronic physical illness frequently suffer from depression and anxiety and now we know it is not merely because their illness makes life harder.
So for me, it was food, specifically wheat and mold that was causing mood issues. And hypomania from too much free glutamate, found in things like soy sauce. But what specifically is causing the immune system to react is probably different for each person. It may be a different food, it may be something environmental or even certain chemicals. It is well worth the effort of trying to find the culprits through a combination of testing and elimination diets. A couple of clues that I can give are that they are likely to be things that have been part of your whole life on a near daily basis. Also the most suspicious ones are things that you find addictive.
If you can pinpoint what is causing your immune system to overreact and inflame your body and brain you can find quick relief within a week or two.
But what triggered my immune system to become so overreactive in the first place? Aside from genetics, is there some other factor?
The Body and History Connection
A few years ago I had a child, whom we never expected to have. It was a case of unexplained infertility that lasted nearly ten years. Then just as I found and removed all my problem foods, I became pregnant. Coincidence? We’ll never know for sure but it’s not much of a stretch to think that your immune system being in constant overdrive would mess with your fertility. Successful pregnancy requires a slightly dampened immune response since the fetus is foreign to the mother’s body.
While food sensitivity in general has not been studied extensively in regards to its connection with infertility, celiac disease has a well studied link to fertility problems.
Having a child brought light to my own history of neglect and abuse that likely contributed to triggering my body and brain to an oversensitive disease state. Had I been brought up in a good enough environment, could I have been spared this disease despite genetic susceptibility? Although we can’t say with certainty, we do know that environmental risk factors for bipolar disorder include a history of childhood abuse and long-term stress. Research also tells us the course of disease is worse for those with childhood trauma.
Our parents or earliest caregivers program our stress response, which impacts our susceptibility to disease. Not just mental illness but a broad spectrum of general illness.
Despite my mental and physical illness, for a large chunk of my life I never thought to seek out treatment for developmental trauma or help for abuse and neglect, because I did not realize that they pertained to me. There are various treatments available for trauma and exciting new developments are underway. If only you first recognize that this might be relevant to you.
In the process of therapy, we had healed some of my attachment trauma without me recognizing it as such. The rest of the healing work is ongoing.
Unresolved trauma has an eery tendency to repeat itself, reverberating through our body, mind, history, and environment. The near complete killing of a self that led to nearly killing myself. Hidden abuse and neglect to hidden allergies and sensitivities causing my mental and physical woes. Actual medical emergencies that were ignored in my childhood to the various chronic complaints that went mostly ignored in adulthood.
Your specific answer is likely not exactly the same as mine. But it is likely that there is much more to the story. You may be able to find the root cause of your mental illness and chronic illness by looking for what is wreaking havoc with your immune system, what caused it to become that way, and learning new ways to soothe it. Beyond medication and therapy, there may be a cure after all.