Bipolar Disorder Overview

Medication for Bipolar Disorder

Lithium is one of the elements on the periodic table and can be found in the earth's crust.
Lithium is one of the elements on the periodic table and can be found in the earth's crust.
©iStockphoto/David Freund

Because the cause of bipolar is largely unknown, the search for effective treatments is difficult. Though certain medications, such as lithium, prove helpful for many bipolar patients, scientists don't know why. Doctors have found that bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that requires consistent, long-term treatment. This usually includes taking prescribed medications even during periods of healthy moods.

Because patients respond differently to the various drugs used to treat the disorder, adjusting the dosage or the kind of medication is often necessary to find the best treatment for an individual. The following is a list of the most popular medications used for bipolar disorder.

Lithium: In the 1970s, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved lithium for treating bipolar disorder, and it is still one of the first lines of treatment for the condition. Lithium is a mood stabilizer, effective against both depressive and manic episodes. After starting on lithium, patients have to visit the doctor for frequent blood tests to monitor lithium levels. After finding a healthy dosage, patients won't have to take the blood tests as often.

Anticonvulsants: Like lithium, anticonvulsants are also mood stabilizers. Anticonvulsants work by stabilizing the overactive parts of the brain. They also are commonly used to prevent seizures in epileptic patients. Different anticonvulsants work in different ways. Some work by increasing levels of the GABA neurotransmitter [source: Frank]. Used alone or with lithium, anticonvulsants can be effective for many bipolar patients.

Atypical Antipsychotics: For people who don't respond to lithium and anticonvulsants, doctors may prescribe atypical antipsychotics, such as clozapine. These kinds of drugs, which are also used to treat schizophrenia, work by affecting the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine.

Benzodiazepines (Anti-Anxiety Drugs): If a bipolar patient is having sleeping problems, benzodiazepines can help promote healthy sleeping routines. These should be used with caution, however, and usually for only a short period because of the possibility of addiction [source: NIMH].

­Antidepressants: Because they can trigger manic episodes, antidepressants are not prescribed to treat bipolar disorder as commonly as they used to be [source: MayoClinic]. Depending on the kind, antidepressants work by adjusting levels of serotonin or norepinephrine in the brain. To learn more about them, read How Antidepressants Work.

In addition to the normal potential for side effects, it is dangerous for pregnant or nursing mothers to take certain mood-stabilizing drugs. Lithium isn't likely to harm a fetus in the womb, but certain anticonvulsants can cause birth defects [source: NAMI]. Changing medications too much during pregnancy can cause negative effects as well [source: NAMI]. Because unexpected pregnancy can make the choice difficult, it's best to discuss the options with a doctor.

Medications are not the only option for fighting bipolar disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health maintains that the best treatment incorporates both medicines like those listed above and psychosocial treatment [source: NIMH]. In the next section, we'll explore these and other kinds of treatments.