Bipolar disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition characterized by shifts in mood, including manic and depressive episodes. The condition is complex and varies between individuals, but medications and therapy can help manage symptoms.
Recently, an emerging field that combines nutrition and psychiatry — known as nutritional psychiatry — has started to associate diet and mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder.
While there’s still much that we don’t know, some early research has linked certain eating styles and nutrients to improvements in BPD symptoms.
In particular, there has been a growing interest in the paleo diet as a treatment for BPD.
This article discusses the link between the paleo diet and bipolar disorder, suggests whether it’s worth trying, and provides other useful tips for managing your bipolar disorder.
Currently, there is no strong evidence to suggest that the paleo diet can help with bipolar disorder.
However, adopting some principles of the diet could help boost brain health and stabilize your mood.
What is the paleo diet?
The paleo diet — short for Paleolithic diet — is an eating style based on foods thought to have been consumed by hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era, around 2.8 million years ago.
Though the diet varies, foods usually permitted include red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and certain oils (e.g., olive oil).
Foods not allowed on the diet include grains, beans, lentils, soy, dairy products, highly processed foods, certain vegetable oils (e.g., canola, corn, safflower), and added sugar.
The diet also prohibits any foods that did not exist during the Paleolithic era and rely on conventional farming practices, such as tofu and artificial sweeteners.
Proponents of the paleo diet suggest that because the current standard Western diet — which is often high in sugar, fat, and salt — may be associated with poorer health, the paleo diet is the way humans were “meant” to eat.
How does diet affect bipolar disorder?
Interestingly, some research has found a link between bipolar disorder and poorer diet quality.
People with BPD appear likely to consume excess sugar, refined carbohydrates, and omega-6 fats. They also tend to eat fewer antioxidant-rich vegetables, fruit, and omega-3 fatty acids — which the paleo diet is often higher in.
That’s one reason some people think the paleo diet might benefit people with BPD.
Another theory is that the paleo diet is low in carbs and similar to the ketogenic (keto) diet, which has been shown to improve certain brain conditions like epilepsy. Thus, a very low carb diet like paleo may theoretically help with BPD.
Some studies suggest that following a keto diet can help improve bipolar disorder symptoms.
However, even though the paleo diet is also low in carbs, it doesn’t help you achieve ketosis, which is the hallmark of the keto diet. So it’s unclear whether the paleo diet would lead to similar results.
What about other diets?
Research has linked the Mediterranean diet to improved mental health. The Mediterranean diet promotes many healthy foods that are off-limits on the paleo diet, such as whole grains, legumes, and small amounts of dairy.
These foods tend to be high in nutrients and beneficial compounds that may improve BPD symptoms, such as folate, zinc, magnesium, and probiotics.
For instance, one 2019 study compared the diets of 113 people with bipolar disorder to the diets of 160 people without bipolar disorder.
Overall, people with BPD had lower Mediterranean diet scores, ate fewer healthy carbs like whole grains and legumes, and followed diets higher in unhealthy fats and sugar than the people who didn’t have bipolar disorder.
It’s important to note that researchers aren’t sure how diet and bipolar disorder are related.
When looking at the 2019 study, for instance, we don’t know whether the people with BPD ate poorer diets due to symptoms of their condition, whether their eating styles exacerbated their conditions, or if there were other factors at play.
What appears to be consistent in research is the promotion of nutrient-dense, minimally-processed diets that encourage vegetables, fruit, omega-3s, and other antioxidant-rich foods associated with better brain health.
So for now, there is no research that directly ties the paleo diet to improvements in bipolar disorder.
Rather, evidence supports consuming a minimally processed diet that contains plenty of antioxidants, healthy fats, and nutrients important for brain health.
Though there’s no clear evidence that the paleo diet helps with bipolar disorder, you may still benefit from adopting certain eating practices that the diet encourages, such as:
- Eating a diet rich in omega-3s: Omega-3 fats are linked with improved brain health. What’s more, people with bipolar disorder tend to have lower omega-3 levels. Food sources include fatty fish, oysters, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, seaweed, and algae. You may also benefit from a supplement, but consult a healthcare professional first.
- Eating more antioxidant-rich foods: A diet high in antioxidants may help combat oxidative stress, which is linked with poorer brain and overall health.
- Limiting added sugar: Excess sugar is linked with poorer health outcomes, such as heart disease and inflammation. While it’s OK to enjoy sugary foods in moderation, it’s best to limit your intake.
- Eating zinc-rich foods: Getting enough zinc is associated with improved bipolar disorder symptoms. Foods high in zinc include oysters, red meat, legumes, and dairy.
- Eating magnesium-rich foods: Adequate magnesium levels are linked with improved bipolar disorder symptoms. Some magnesium-rich foods include nuts and seeds, cooked spinach, soy milk, dairy, whole grains, potatoes, fish, poultry, and meat.
- Limiting or avoiding caffeine: It’s recommended that people with bipolar disorder avoid or limit stimulants, such as caffeine, especially during manic episodes. Foods high in caffeine include coffee, some types of tea, energy drinks, sodas, and dark chocolate.
- Avoiding alcohol: Alcohol may negatively interact with certain medications often used to treat bipolar disorder, such as lithium. Alcohol misuse may also trigger or worsen depressive episodes.
In addition to a healthy diet, your healthcare provider may recommend certain medications, therapies, and other lifestyle modifications to help you better manage your bipolar disorder.
Learn more about self-care practices to help you manage bipolar disorder here.
Here are some frequently asked questions about the paleo diet and bipolar disorder.
Does the paleo diet help with mental health?
To date, there is no research that links the paleo diet to improvements in mental health.
However, certain aspects of the paleo diet, such as choosing mostly minimally-processed and nutrient-dense foods, may benefit your mood.
It’s also possible that, to the contrary, the paleo diet could negatively affect your mental health. There is evidence that following restrictive diets like the paleo diet raises your risk of developing an eating disorder.
What are some mood-stabilizing foods?
Though no food is known to directly stabilize your mood, some foods are linked with better mood regulation and mental wellbeing.
These include fatty fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, whole grains, dark chocolate, and fermented foods.
Does the paleo diet help with depression?
To date, there is no research that supports the paleo diet in treating or curing depression.
Nutritional psychiatry is a new, emerging field of research with a lot of promise. Some evidence suggests that diet may play a role in mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder.
Though some proponents of the paleo diet say that the diet helps improve BPD symptoms, there’s little research to support this.
The diet discourages many brain-healthy foods like whole grains, legumes, and dairy, and it’s associated with a higher risk of eating disorders. People with BPD are already at higher risk of EDs, so the paleo diet may not be a safe choice for them.
However, some attributes of the diet — such as prioritizing minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods and limiting foods high in sugar — may be linked with better symptom management.
You can use these principles without following the paleo diet, though.
Right now, there’s no reason to adopt the paleo diet to treat BPD.
Instead, try to get a variety of nutrient-dense foods in your diet and work closely with a healthcare professional for personalized care.