Alternative medicine

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Alternative medicine is the use of a nonconventional approach instead of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is a nonconventional approach used along with conventional medicine.

There isn't much research on alternative medicine and bipolar disorder. Most of the studies on alternative or complementary medicine that do exist are on major depression, so it isn't clear how well most of these work for bipolar disorder.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. These oils may help improve depression associated with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder appears to be less common in areas of the world where people regularly eat fish rich in omega-3s. Omega-3s appear to have a number of health benefits, but more studies are needed to determine just how much they help with bipolar disorder.
  • Magnesium. Several small studies have suggested that magnesium supplements may lessen mania and the rapid cycling of bipolar symptoms. More research is needed to confirm these findings.
  • St. John's wort. This herb may be helpful with depression. However, it can also interact with antidepressants and other medications, and it has the potential to trigger mania in some people.
  • S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe). This amino acid supplement appears to help brain function related to depression. It isn't clear yet whether it's helpful in people with bipolar disorder. As with St. John's wort, SAMe can trigger mania in some people.
  • Herbal combinations. Herbal remedies that combine a number of different herbs, such as those used in traditional Chinese medicine, haven't been well-studied and the contents may vary among products. Risks and benefits still aren't clear.
  • Acupuncture. This ancient Chinese practice of inserting tiny needles into the skin may relieve depression, but more studies are needed to confirm its benefits. However, acupuncture is considered safe and can be done along with other bipolar disorder treatments.

If you choose to use complementary medicine in addition to your physician-recommended treatment, take some precautions first:

  • Don't stop taking your prescribed medications or skip therapy sessions. Alternative medicine is not a substitute for regular medical care when it comes to treating bipolar disorder.
  • Be honest with your doctors and mental health providers. Tell them exactly which complementary treatments you use or would like to try.
  • Be aware of potential dangers. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe. Before using alternative or complementary medicine, find out the risks, including possible interactions with medications.
Feb. 10, 2015