Does Inflammation Cause Bipolar Disorder?

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A rope-wrapped, rusty pipe bent at an angle with small nails driven into it. Credit to flickr.com user jurek d. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Inflammation, or swelling, is a very important medical condition that affects many parts of our bodies, including our brains. It’s the body’s protective response to infection. In some autoimmune diseases, like arthritis, the body’s immune system triggers an inflammatory response when there are no bacteria or viruses to fight off. This means that the immune system damages normal, healthy tissues, as if they are somehow infected.

But what does all of this mean for bipolar disorder? Several things, actually.

A 2013 study conducted in Denmark posits that mood disorders could be the brain’s response to inflammation. Researchers found that people who suffered from an autoimmune disease were a whopping 45% more likely to develop a mood disorder. The report found that people who were treated for inflammation also had improved moods, and that the effectiveness of antidepressants in these people increased.

Similarly, a 2011 study in the Journal of Neuroinflammation found that high levels of quinolinic acid, a byproduct of inflammation, are associated with suicidal tendencies and chronic depression.

Even lithium,  the gold standard in treating bipolar disorder, might have anti-inflammatory properties in the brain. No one knows exactly how the drug works, but recent studies point towards lithium reducing inflammation.

Similarly, there is some evidence that other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen may improve the effect of bipolar medications, at least in bipolar depression. Mania doesn’t seem to be impacted.

All of this is interesting news, but the causal link between bipolar disorder and inflammation has yet to be fully established. No one knows if inflammation causes bipolar disorder or if bipolar disorder causes inflammation. And mania doesn’t seem to be affected at all, just depression, and no one knows why. There are several possible causes of bipolar disorder, ranging from genetics to environment to childhood trauma. The true causes of bipolar disorder are multi-factorial, meaning that there are many reasons why you might develop the psychiatric condition. Inflammation is just another piece of the puzzle.

So the answer to the question of whether inflammation causes bipolar disorder is a solid maybe. Inflammation is related to bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, but no one knows exactly how yet. While reducing inflammation is generally a good idea to promote optimum health, it won’t cure your bipolar disorder.

Ways to reduce inflammation include taking turmeric capsules, eating a healthy diet including plenty of vegetables, nuts, and fruits, and getting plenty of exercise. Talk to your doctor before engaging in any dietary change or embarking on an exercise program.

I wish you luck in your journey.

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Author: Cassandra Stout

Hi! My name is Cassandra Stout, and I am a freelancer and memoirist who blogs at The Bipolar Parent (Cassandrastout.com/bpparent) and at the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF.org). My current project is Committed, my upcoming memoir that depicts my time spent in a psych ward after a postpartum psychotic breakdown. I am a ten-year member of a five-person critique group called the Seattle Scribblers. It's nice to meet you!

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