To say that bipolar disorder is overdue for a new treatment option is an understatement. Medication is necessary to manage the illness and the standard continues to be lithium—a drug that was first used to treat bipolar back in the late 1800s.

Part of that has to do with complexity of the disorder, which isn’t just one set of symptoms, like those associated with major depression, but rather two sets—the lows of depression and the highs of mania. But even that’s an oversimplification.

That said, there are some newer adjunctive therapies being researched that are showing promise. Here are six potential bipolar therapies to know about.

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Bright Light Therapy

Exposure to bright light for up to 60 minutes a day has long been linked with easing symptoms of depression in patients with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and unipolar depression, and more recent research from Dorothy Sit, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Katherine Wisner, M.D., Director of the Asher Center for the Study and Treatment of Depressive Disorders at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine suggests it’s also effective with bipolar depression. Their study exposed bipolar patients to 7000-lux bright light for 15 minutes a day, graduating up to 60 minutes a day, and found that 68 percent of participants went into remission within four to six weeks.

But there are two important qualifiers to be aware of: One, study participants were on mood stabilizers before they underwent light therapy. That’s key because antidepressant treatment in the absence of other mood-stabilizing medications has been known to trigger mania in bipolar patients.

And two, bright light should be administered at mid-day (between noon and two o’clock), not in the morning as is done with SAD patients. “We discovered that the patients who were seeing morning light, even at the low dose, started to experience hypomania,” says Dr. Sit, the lead study author. “But when we moved the timing of the light to midday, it elicited a robust antidepressant effect. We don’t yet have a great answer for why it works, though we speculate it could have an effect on resetting the circadian rhythms that govern sleep, metabolism, activity levels, and more.”

Updated: Jul 27, 2021
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