The Science that Helped Me Help Myself: 9 Steps to Balance
Ever since I was a kid I loved biology, chemistry, science of any kind really! I found the world and all of its creatures incredibly fascinating! Unfortunately, when I received my bipolar diagnoses at age 17, that began to change. I was put on various medications trying to find what “worked for me,” and the resulting brain fog, fatigue, and lack of emotional excitement for life and education in general made it nearly impossible to keep up where I once excelled. So I transferred to lower level sciences, took easier classes, and overall stopped challenging myself. Little did I know the long term damage I was causing. You see, by not stimulating my brain I was only contributing to its demise. Something I didn’t even realize until a few years ago.
Here is where things truly started to change for my betterment and I believe for the betterment of the entire bipolar community:
Based on MRI studies done on patients with bipolar disorder at the University of Oslo published in 2017, it was found that the major contributing factor to lack of inhibition and emotional disregulation was deterioration of the patients’ gray matter in the brain.
When I first discovered this I was fascinated! I had to learn more! So I started taking a neuroscience class, reading books, studying up online, watching every YouTube video I could. It was the first time in 7 years I had a yearning for this kind of knowledge. I wanted so deeply to learn about myself! And the more I studied it begged the question... What could be done naturally to stimulate gray matter production in my brain?
From various sources of study, here is what I found most important to increase my brain’s functionality:
Regular exercise: Physical and Mental
Healthy Diet & Supplementation
Avoiding Harmful Substances
Lowering Stress through Mindfulness Activities
Less Theatrical Entertainment: GET OFF Netflix and Socials!
When you suffer from a mood disorder, anything less than 7 hours sleep is going to be detrimental. For me personally I feel the most balanced after a full 8. Anything less and my mood swings are more than noticeable. You can ask my husband.
I understand that, in points of mania, getting adequate sleep can seem nearly impossible. But when accompanied by the 8 practices laid out above, I have personally found getting the sleep I need incredibly realistic, even if I begin to slide into mania. And as God told Peter when he was emotionally distraught, I am a firm believer in eating a snack and taking a nap!
Getting adequate sleep is so important for our brains’ ability to calm, mood regulate, focus, and practice self restraint. Is this something you struggle with?
When we regularly engage in physical activity:
Our muscles produce cytokines that reduce inflammation
Blood vessel growth increases improving oxygen flow to the brain
Endorphin production increases for better mood
Body temperature rises which calms the mind resulting in better sleep
The brain produces proteins that stimulate creation of new neuron connections (a process called neurogenesis which prevents cognitive decline and memory loss).
I personally engage in physical exercise 60-90 minutes a day 5-7 days a week. This is a set up that took me a while to solidify. From my personal experience, going any longer than 90 minutes would feed into my mania and any less than 60 would feed my depression. Within the 60-90 minute time block, I am able to feel productive with my workout without pushing it to the point where I feel invincible. And why 5-7 days a week? Because I feel most balanced when I exercise daily! However, I also understand that allowing myself the potential for a rest day or two provides me with the leniency I need to not feel guilty if I have an off day and just don't make it to the gym.
My mental exercises run on a similar time frame, 5-7 days a week minimum 60 minutes a day. When it comes to brain activities so far I haven't really found a max out time capacity. I honestly engage in one form of them or another consistently throughout my days. I find that engaging multiple brain activities daily keeps me from getting bored and engaging in less beneficial activities. So long as I am learning I am usually good to go!
Mental exercises have been shown to activate growth factors that promote brain health. Activities like:
Learning a New Language
Learning a new skill
Teaching a new skill
Expanding your vocabulary
All improve our brain's memory, focus, and overall functionality. Currently I am using Duo-lingo (a language learning app) to learn Hebrew, I am reading The Four Agreements and Thyroid Mind Cure, I on occasion play sudoku, I am learning to play piano, teaching health coaching, and a word I learned today was anorexigenic (loss of appetite). I know at first this may look like a lot but you don't have to do it all in one day. Only 60 minutes minimum remember? So you could do 30 minutes of language learning and start putting together a jigsaw puzzle for 30 minutes. When in doubt just go one step at a time one day at a time.
I used to be THE WORST at drinking water! I was one of those people growing up that counted juices and sodas as my liquid intake for the day. Now? Well, now I carry a half gallon refillable bottle with me everywhere I go. Oh how times have changed...
I always recommend a minimum of 1 gallon a day across the board but more if your body signals you for it. With my level of physical activity I usually get closer to 2 gallons in order to prevent dehydration.
When you think about it, our brain alone is composed of 73% water so it should come as no surprise that hydration is a key factor in having a healthy brain. When we are dehydrated, our body's cells shrink and their function is impaired causing an imbalance called oxidative stress. This can cause damage to fatty tissue, DNA, and proteins everywhere in our body, including our brain. So if you don't have a reusable water bottle that you refill throughout the day, I recommend getting one as soon as you finish reading this.
FOOD & SUPPLEMENTS:
Contrary to societal belief, food is FUEL! Now before you panic, I am not going to tell you to give up all of your favorite foods, go vegan, and eat kale with every meal. I myself enjoy a burger and fries every now and again! The difference is that I am more conscious of how my body metabolizes different foods into nutrient fuel. But it didn't always used to be that way. It wasn't until I started my more holistic journey that I even began to think about what I was putting in my mouth.
In the past I would have a late "breakfast" consisting of a sugary coffee and whatever breakfast pastry I was feeling for the day. Then I would snack on chips, fruit snacks or both before my lunch where I would eat some kind of fast food (Panda Express, In-N-Out, and Taco Bell were my jam). I'd have a few more snacks like donuts or ice cream followed by some sort of carbohydrate packed dinner (pasta was my favorite). And of course I would always go back for seconds. I used to joke, "Thank God I have a fast metabolism otherwise I'd be morbidly obese!" But what I was really doing to my body was even worse.
The science behind our gut being our second brain has been becoming much more mainstream as of late, but I assure you this is not new science. Here are just some of the basics of how it works:
When you eat, your food passes through your small intestine over tiny finger like projections called villi.
Your villi absorb nutrients from your food and disperse them throughout your body on the cellular level. And that includes the nutrients and gut signals being sent to your brain. In your villi you have a specific cell that acts as a gut sensor called the enteroendocrine cell. This particular cell communicates with your vagus nerve which is in charge of sending that information to the brain by reading the mechanical, thermal, and chemical stimuli like nutrients and bacteria. So when you have bad bacteria in your gut from the fast foods, processed foods, additives, preservatives, trans fats, starches, salts, and refined sugars consumed in most commercial food products, it can effect everything from your weight to your mood. An overabundance of this bad bacteria causes a chemical imbalance and increase in total body inflammation (including oxidative stress in the brain) that has the potential to result in a wide array of psychological disorders. But when we have more good bacteria in our gut from eating a healthier diet, it releases a neurotransmitter called GABA which can stimulate relaxation amongst other things. I personally have experienced less intense episodes, an overall more calm feeling, better skin pigmentation, hair growth, dissipation of digestive issues and so much more simply by giving my body the nutrition it needs!
The main issue in this lies in the fact that even organic foods from the grocery store are not what they used to be. Not to mention the standard RDA (recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals) is not enough to truly keep us healthy. As Nobel prize winner Dr. Linus Pauling said, the RDA's are "enough to keep people barely alive in ordinary poor health." So what does that mean for someone with a mood disorder who needs therapeutic doses of vitamins and minerals? It means supplementation is necessary.
There was a point in my journey in which I attempted to get the proper doses of my therapeutic RDA's through whole foods, and based on the rough estimate (since whole food nutrient content is not truly measurable), I couldn't get anywhere close to what I needed in a singular day. It was just too much food! Which is why I choose to supplement. As far as what I use and how much, every body is different, but you can reach out to me in the email section below any time to learn more.
AVOID ALCOHOL & DRUGS:
This is a BIG one. The fastest way to get off track is by using and abusing substances. Substance abuse not only negatively affects our villi in our gut, it also affects our brains ability to generate new neurons (neurogenesis). This is beyond harmful to a bipolar person’s already limited gray matter.
Now I know for some this may not be an easy task. It was something I myself struggled with for years. Substances used to be the only real way I could live with myself. It started with going to parties and getting drunk or cross faded. Then it transitioned into day drinking, smoking whenever I felt anxious, and this was in part during the time when I was ON medication if that can tell you anything. And because I was young I was told this was “normal,” that it was a “phase” every college student goes through. Though I do not blame the people who encouraged my poor behavior (my choices are my choices and no one else’s), I believe we as a society need to be aware that encouraging this harmful behavior in anyone, simply because they are young, has the potential to send individuals into lifelong addictions they are now less apt to handle because of the damage they have done to their brain... if not something far worse.
When I personally was using and abusing substances, the aftermath was usually suicidal thoughts or attempts, raging long episodes, or stints in the hospital. And a majority of the people I surrounded myself with had NO idea what I was going through. I was a master of the mask. Everything was smiles and rainbows on the outside while on the inside I was falling apart. That is partially why episodes can appear to happen out of nowhere from a third party perspective. But I assure you, there is always some kind of build up. However, unless you are with that person all hours of the day every day and know their quirks like the back of your hand, identifying the build up yourself can seem nearly impossible. Which is why, as the bipolar party, the first thing I do when I feel the build up starting is open the lines of communication with my support system rather than falling back onto substances. Most people won't know you're struggling unless you say something and healing a wound is far better than numbing the pain as the wound continues to fester.
The only alcohol I allow myself to consume nowadays is a singular glass of red wine on special occasions. The reason I choose red wine is because it contains resveratrol, making it the only alcohol that does not negatively impact neurogenesis. It is my job to heal and protect my brain, my gut, and my soul. Substances only get in the way of that process.
I am going to be completely honest with you, I used to be the person who voiced that personal development, meditation, and other mindfulness exercises were a load of crap. I would scoff at any post I saw about "bettering yourself" and thought that the person posting it simply had a self righteousness complex. But deep down, I mean DEEP down, under the eye rolls and sarcastic comments, I wanted to better myself. I just didn't know how or think that it was truly possible.
As odd as this may sound, my journey in this arena started at the gym. My entire life I played sports and danced; physical activities in general came pretty easily to me. So when the gym I was going to started offering a yoga class, I figured I'd give it a try! With my dance background I honestly thought it would be easy. But what I didn't expect was the emotional shift I experienced after the class was over. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders! I could breath deeper, see clearer, and actually relax. It was a beautiful feeling I had only ever experienced when I was on a stage performing. And being out of soul fulfilling work at the time, I fell in love with yoga!
When I first got off of my medication my therapist recommended I try his colleague's small group Yoga practice for mental health patients. I was already on the Yoga train so I was excited to give it a go! [This was my real gateway into all things mindfulness.] Dr. Dunbar’s yoga practice incorporated meditation and breathing techniques. He explained to us why we were using specific mantras and breathing patterns and how to apply them in our daily lives. My mind felt open! I was more willing than I had ever been to try new things! And then I reached my Holy Grail: reading personal development books. The practices laid out in these books, the very ones I used to make fun of, were able to bring the feeling I felt in yoga and meditation into my every moment. I had never felt so equipped to handle my life, bipolar or no bipolar!
I came to find out that stress is one of the most common triggers to send someone with BPD into an episode. Now I'm not saying that ANY stress will send an individual with bipolar flying out of control. Each person has their own capacity and their own definition of stress. But when episodes come, some form of stressor is usually involved. This psychological stress increases oxidative stress in the brain, damaging cells and causing chronic inflammation when in extended periods of this state. Which is exactly what happens in manic depressive episodes. Mindfulness activities, on the other hand, have been shown to decrease oxidative stress, decrease cortisol production, and increase melatonin. I could go into a whole other tangent about cortisol and bipolar, but I will save that for another time.
THE REALITY OF THEATRICAL ENTERTAINMENT:
In a world of TikTok and Netflix & Chill, where scrolling on your phone and texting is more normalized than making a phone call, I understand the idea of moving away from these things may seem a little extreme. But I assure you, ESPECIALLY if you are bipolar, using these things as sparingly as possible will be the start of an entirely new journey for you!
At the start of 2020 the effects of too much theatrical entertainment became all too real for me. As the world began to shut down all of my travels were canceled. Then my musical performances: canceled. My husband and I lost 80% of our business at our brick & mortar nutrition club and we received zero funding to help us through the year. Day by day I slowly began to find myself getting sucked in, specifically to TikTok. I had initially downloaded the app to create rather than consume and I had built up a pretty nice following. But as the months went on I was creating less and consuming more until, whenever I had a moment, I would find myself sitting scrolling on my phone. Then the rapid cycling began and TikTok became my escape. It wasn't until my husband said something to me that I even realized it had become a problem.
I came to find out that excessive theatrical entertainment [TikTok, Instagram, Netflix, Hulu, etc.] alters brain structure resulting in decreased development of the prefrontal cortex. Not only that, but it overdevelops the brain's emotion circuits. I had no idea what I was doing to myself! So I immediately deleted TikTok, implemented a TV schedule with my husband, and have not had a major episode since this change.
My main recommendation is this: If your TV or Social Media feel like an addiction or a distraction, quit cold turkey like I did with TikTok. If they are something you could do without but you are still on a lot, set yourself some limitations. IE: 1 movie or 2 TV episodes only after 7pm.
I am going to start this section by sharing another anecdote from my own life. Not too long ago my husband joined a bipolar spouse support group on Facebook. I honestly didn't even know Facebook had groups like that, but I figured if they had support groups for spouses they would definitely have groups for those with bipolar. So I typed in the search bar: Bipolar Support Group.
I scrolled down the list and saw various groups and even a support group for Christians! My faith has been a huge anchor in my journey to balance, so I figured I would join 2 groups; both the most active "regular" support group and the Christian based group. Here is what I found:
In the "regular" support group where, I must specify, it was one of the group rules not to express your religion, the posts and responses were overall incredibly negative. As I sat and scrolled down the line of posts I myself started to feel a heaviness in my chest. It was triggering a negative reaction in me. "How in the world could this be helpful?!" I thought. I immediately switched over to the Christian group just to do a comparison. I'm not the kind of person to give up just because my first experience was subpar. The difference I noticed was night and day! This group's leaders regularly posted thought provoking questions encouraging others to share positive experiences, motivating bible verses were scattered throughout, and I felt uplifted immediately as I scrolled down the page! I could tell that this was a community that truly aimed to help rather than just be a place for angry people to post about their problems. There is a huge difference between a support group and a venting group, and if you can't tell the difference you probably haven't really found your support group yet.
Whether you are Christian or not, studies have shown that healthy spirituality can reduce anxiety, stress, rates of suicide, and increase overall life satisfaction scores. Similar to mindfulness exercises, having faith focused on a God of Love can reduce oxidative stress in your brain.
MEANINGFUL WORK - FINDING A PURPOSE:
In regards to meaningful work I like to touch on a Japanese concept called Ikigai. This concept in its simplest form is designed to help you find your reason for being, or your purpose. To find your Ikigai, you need to combine 4 things:
What you love
What you are good at
What you can be paid for
What the world needs
If you are missing just one of these four factors the result will be emptiness in some facet of your life. For example, if you have 1-3 but not 4, you will have satisfaction but an overall feeling of uselessness. 2-4 but not 1? You will be comfortable but not fulfilled. Lets switch up the order and say you have 1, 2, & 4 but not 3. This will result in delightment but cause stress surrounding lack of finance. And if you only have 3, 4, & 1 you will have excitement and security but with a sense of uncertainty and a feeling that you do not truly belong. No matter which way you turn the dial, if you are missing one of the four you will always be in search of something. Whether it's uselessness, lack of fulfillment, lack of finance, or uncertainty, I think that we can all agree that none of these are particularly ideal when it comes to a work environment. I myself, for most of my life, was in a constant cycle of not fulfilling number 4 (What the world needs). More often than bled into falling short on number 3 (What you can be paid for) as well. I was so focused on selfish goals and wanting what was easy as to avoid stress, that I inevitably ended up more stressed out and with an emptiness in my soul.
Another factor to consider as a bipolar person in the workforce is the topic of working for others vs working for yourself. This is something you must inevitably decide on your own, but from my personal experience holding down a long term J-O-B was incredibly difficult. In order to keep my balance I require time freedom, which is something an employer has never been able to provide for me. So I chose the route of entrepreneurship. Though this was not the easier path it was the only path where I could attain true freedom. And the cherry on top is that my journey to becoming an entrepreneur is what inevitably taught me all 9 skills I have listed above. But at the start when I was choosing specifically what I was going to do, by necessity I was looking for an opportunity where I could build residual income. That way, if a time in my life came when I was unable to work, my income would not disappear.
So I must ask you: Have you found an opportunity that can take care of you and your family for the rest of your life, whether you are physically working or not, that also checks all 4 boxes? If the answer was no, I encourage you to look for that opportunity and keep an open mind toward whatever doors open for you.