My personal Health Story
Living with Bipolar Syndrome
I’ve lived with mental health problems for 40 years since my early teens; the diagnosis that best describes what I’ve lived with over the years is bipolar type II, although I could be diagnosed with having bipolar syndrome type 1 because I probably had a hyper-manic episode in my early 20s.
(Just for reference bipolar syndrome type II is characterised by significant depressions and bouts of hypomania, a highly energetic state but distinctly milder than and not as serious as the extreme hyper-manias which characterise bipolar type I).
Today I have my condition completely under control without drugs but in the past long bouts of depression ruined huge chunks of my life and nearly killed me many times, hypo-manias led me into drug taking and other reckless behaviours, I’ve had social anxiety and intrusive paranoid thoughts which together with the alternating bouts of manic-depression have sometimes made me socially isolated.
Later on you can read the history of my mental health from the beginning but I’ll start with how I finally learned treat my bipolar syndrome and achieve mental wellness. Like many people with bipolar Type II I knew I had depression but I did not recognise the hypo-manic aspect of my condition, I would often get mixed-states but I thought this was a combination of depression and anxiety. Although a psychiatrist told me I had bipolar syndrome in my early 30s I refused to accept it and it took me many years to get to the point where I combined the right diagnosis with the right treatment.
In my mid 20s I discovered that I could improve my mental health problems with nonconventional treatments (nutritional supplements, herbs, and alternative psychotherapies) spent all my time and money for the next 10 years looking for a solution to my problems. I tried everything from acupuncture to colonic hydrotherapy, from shamanism to crystal healing, my involvement in alternative therapies appeared to some people around me to be a strange obsession but what they didn’t know was that I was fighting illness that was not only painful but had regularly tried to kill me.
By my late 30s I would still get regular bouts of depressions but I had learned how to quickly switch them off with natural remedies mainly by boosting my serotonin levels and I learned how to control the uncomfortable paranoia and social anxiety with psychological and psychotherapy techniques; I built up a successful practice and so I thought I was doing pretty well and my mental health problems were no longer the primary focus in my life.
In my early 40s however I had a bout of depression that felt different to previous depressions and it wouldn’t respond to my usual treatments; it lasted five years and took everything away from my life, family, friends, work success, etc. in the end I became suicidal again for the first time in over 15 years.
Eventually I stumbled on some information describing the psychological characteristics of dopamine and suddenly realised that what I was experiencing was a lack of dopamine activity my brain not serotonin and I’ve been treating the wrong neurotransmitter. At the time it didn’t make any sense to me that my brain could seem to switch from having a problem with one neurotransmitter to now having a problem with the different neurotransmitter but all that really matters is getting well so I flew out the house and bought everything I could that would boost dopamine and put it by my bedside with a glass of water. My situation was serious and I was desperate for this to work so I took everything at the maximum dosage and the following morning swallowed a bowlful of pills and went back to sleep; several hours later I was standing in my kitchen astonished by what had just happened I had the energy and motivation to put up shelves in my kitchen job which had been waiting to be done for several years and I couldn’t feel the depression. It seemed unbelievable that a five-year long illness could just end in a day but there was no denying that there had been a dramatic change; actually over the years I’ve had several patients tell me that as soon as they applied the right treatment to correct a neurotransmitter imbalance in the brain they experienced a rapid and dramatic restoration of their mental health.
I wasn’t immediately confident that I found the solution because I’d studied the stories of the first time the dopaminergic drug L-dopa was used on Parkinson’s and depressed patients in the 1950s, initially it produced miraculous results, some patients literally got out of their wheelchairs and walked again but within weeks or months it stopped working as the dopamine synapses quickly became desensitised to the artificially elevated dopamine levels and some people were even rendered worse off; although I rarely see the natural remedies producing habituation I can be confident at that stage that they wouldn’t do the same thing as the drug L-dopa? Thankfully it turned out they didn’t and I was able to benefit from their use for several years until developed a better treatment which are discussed below and no longer needed them.
The second issue was that within a few days of boosting dopamine I would end up in an unpleasant and messed up condition, I was hyper-energetic, agitated, jittery, slightly dissociated, highly paranoid and very intense at least in other people’s eyes, I only needed four or five hours sleep compared to the 12 or more hours I had been previously sleeping, furthermore I could feel depression lurking in the background. In many ways I looked and felt like someone that was high and strung out from cocaine and far too much coffee, I remembered being like this quite often in my early 20s. With the benefit of hindsight it obvious that I was at least hypo-manic if not hyper-manic with mixed-states but I didn’t immediately see that and for the first couple of weeks I hoped I could fix this problem simply by just adjusting the dosage rather than have to give the treatment of altogether; when I went hyper I was simply stop on the remedies for a few days, try make myself sleep with hefty doses of zinc, melatonin, tryptophan, wine and huge doses of omega-3 fish oils. After two or three days on this regime I would quickly slide back into a depressed condition and then restart the remedies at a different dosage.
It quickly became very obvious that every time I boosted dopamine it would induce this altered hyper-energetic condition and the more I studied dopamine the more I saw references to it playing a central role in bipolar syndrome, suddenly the penny dropped, I realised this condition was a bipolar mixed-state and the psychiatrist I had seen over 10 years ago was right I have bipolar manic-depression not unipolar depression! Embracing and applying the model bipolar syndrome to myself transformed my life, it was like completing a jigsaw puzzle and finally being able to see the whole picture, not only did it explain a lot of my past but improved my future by leading me in new treatment directions.
The first six weeks of boosting dopamine was a rollercoaster ride of being catapulted out of depression into a manic high stopping and then restarting the remedies at different dosages, I tried preloading a single high dose then pulling back to lower dosages, alternate day dosages etc etc. bear in mind that there was no one in the world at least that I know of that could advise me on how to combine or set the dosage for this treatment approach. Boosting dopamine would really hit the depression nail on the head but I didn’t seem to be able to adjust the dosage without overshooting and ending up manic. This phenomenon of treatment -induced mania is well-known in conventional psychiatry when people with bipolar syndrome take antidepressant drugs there is a very real risk that the antidepressants will induce mania so it is generally considered too risky and ill-advised to prescribe antidepressants to treat depression in people with bipolar syndrome. I understood the risks, I’m the person living with them but as I wasn’t prepared to live with constant depression anymore and boosting dopamine was the only thing that anti-doted my depression I was just going to have to learn how to control and harness the power of dopamine based antidepressants.
I was thinking along the lines of taking control of my dopamine levels in the same way that a diabetic takes control of their blood sugar levels. The diabetic monitors their blood sugar the drop of blood and the meter I could get a rough sense of my dopamine levels by simply observing my ‘speed’, too much dopamine I starts speeding up like a person on cocaine too little dopamine I start slowing down, sleeping and feeling depressed. Learning to control dopamine in the bipolar brain is a little bit like learning to control the speed in a car with a faulty gas pedal, the fault is when you apply just even a little bit of pressure on the gas pedal flood the engine with much more gas than you want and the car accelerates off to an unsafe speed; first thing I wanted was to know how to apply strong breaks. Boosting dopamine was easy but it was initially quite difficult to find natural remedies that could apply the brakes and dampen down excessive dopamine activity.
My first few anti-mania treatments were very crude indeed, I would basically knock myself out and induce long heavy sleep for a night two: I’ve previously observed that the right amount of omega-3 fish oils would have an antidepressant effect but if I suddenly flooded my brain high dosage it would induce a mild depression and of course depression is the opposite of mania so I used that, the depression would only last about three days which is a small price to pay for ending a bout of mania that could render me depressed for weeks or months. I combined the oils with high doses of sleep inducing remedies, tryptophan, melatonin, magnesium, very high knockout doses of zinc which also reduces excitation in the brain by quenching the activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate (excess glutamate activity also occurs in periods of mania) and last but not least I would wash all of this down with half a bottle of wine to really knock myself out. It was crude but effective and within three days I recovered my stability, it felt like I was shutting down my brain the way I used to have to rebooting a frozen computer by pulling the power socket out back in the day with Windows 98 (Mac users may not get that).
Over the next couple of years I experimented with more refined dopamine/brain speed control techniques, I really enjoyed those years although there were ups and downs it was exciting and empowering to be making new discoveries that gave me control of my condition. I noticed the better I got of being able to The mania then the more strongly I could treat the depression without risk of it flipping me into mania so that eventually I got to the point where I now live completely free from depression, it just doesn’t get a look in if it tries to get a hold of me I can treated aggressively and simultaneously stabilise the mania.
I experimented with the amino acids taurine and glycine which sedate the brain and branched-chain amino acids which move tyrosine the building block of dopamine into the muscles to reduce levels in the brain.
I even started deliberately making myself manic to experiment with new treatments. The manias would come randomly sometimes during my clinic days I could not afford to experiment with some new and tried and tested technique in those days although the crude reboot technique rendered me mildly depressed I could still work. So when I had several days off work I found I could make myself manic very quickly with high doses of antidepressant tyrosine, SAM-e and bright light therapy and then experiment with new anti-mania treatments knowing that if they didn’t work I could always fall back on the crude reboot technique, I wish I’d videoed one of these experiments showing myself first in a normal condition, then manic then swallowing the antidote then filming what happened but I wasn’t into sharing my story or video blogging at that time. I may try that in the future but I’m actually now so stable and not sure I even could as quickly destabilise myself and induce mania as I could in those days.
I tried high doses of glycine, taurine, branched-chain amino acids, lecithin, lithium orotate (not high doses) on their own to get an intuitive subjective feel for how the effect of my brain chemistry then I started trying them in useful combinations.
Another thing I noticed was sometimes when I increased my dopamine levels I found I became short tempered and aggressive prone to outbursts of road rage for example, I knew this type of loss of control of one’s temper can be associated with diminished serotonin levels, seen in some alcoholics and violent criminals so instead of reducing my precious dopamine I tried increasing my serotonin levels to counterbalance it and it worked.
Within a year I found I could set my mood at any level I wanted! Which gave rise to an unexpected question: where to set my mood, what’s normal? What is my normal natural illness free mood level, who could say? I mean I’m not Italian so presumably I’m not supposed to be beaming sunshine most days and then occasionally have a day when I had low mood, I’m British surely am supposed to be complaining, self-effacing and slightly miserable most days and have an occasional sunny day. As you might expect I tried maintaining myself at a pleasantly high cruising speed of slight hypo-mania but just like when Icarus flew too high and close to the sun and his wings melted so he crashed and burned it seemed that when I would try to maintain too high a level of dopamine the dopaminergic pathways would get exhausted and burnout. (If you’re reading this with Google translation just ignore the Icarus reference :-) Eventually the answer to this question was very simple the balanced point for me was what I could sustain, but what I could sustain actually changed and increased as I learned more and more ways of compensating for the imbalance in my bipolar brain.
The next thing I added was one of the most life changing discovery’s have ever made (thank you Dr Phelps of psycheducation.org) will be familiar with the phenomenon that bright light therapy can have an antidepressant effect what you may not know is that immersion in total darkness can have an anti-manic effect. Somehow immersing the bipolar brain in total darkness enables it to reboot and regenerate itself; this is still a very new and experimental treatment approach but it works for me. When I still had manic hijackings I would increase by darkness therapy hours to 12 or even 14 hours a day to shut it down, but on an ongoing basis all I do to apply this therapy is sleep 7 ½ hours in a totally dark bedroom (just wearing an eye mask doesn’t cut it) and where amber coloured blue blocking glasses for a few hours before going to sleep. This treatment seems to be particularly effective for the notoriously hard to treat rapid cycling bipolar which is great because that’s what I have when I’m not medicated.
Learning about darkness therapy led me to research the part of the brain that detects when it daytime and nighttime and runs our sleep cycle (the suprachiasmatic nucleus or biological clock). This opened up completely new avenue of treatment, instead of seeing my disturbed sleep cycles as just a symptom of the bipolar that hopefully would go away when I rebalance the bipolar I discovered that I could treat the bipolar by treating my sleep cycle disturbances with specific remedies in combination with bright blue light and darkness therapy. I got so into sleep and sleep cycles it led to the publication of my first book: Sleep Better with Natural Therapies.
Another amazing discovery made was how to use ultra-low-dose lithium in the form of lithium orotate. Like many people I was afraid of taking lithium because of the potential the toxic side-effects but as I explain elsewhere lithium is not actually a toxic mineral in the same way that say lead or mercury are toxic minerals, lithium is a nutritional mineral required in trace amounts to maintain health which can be used at very high doses to control bipolar mania but unfortunately these high doses can produce unpleasant even harmful side effects. The more I learnt about lithium the more I could see how it has the potential to wonderfully balance the bipolar brain if only I could figure out a way to take it without the side effects produced from high doses.
I looked at how lithium combated the imbalance of omega-3 oils in the bipolar brain and thought if I could get the levels of omega-3 to omega-6 and EPA to DHA in my brain as close to perfect as I could with my diet and supplements, in other words if I did most of the heavy lifting for the lithium could I then get a useful therapeutic effect from a much lower dose; I did the same with the way lithium affects the running of the biological clock, the way lithium affects neurotransmitters and the way it affects neuro inflammation and to my pleasant surprise I found that I could extract a powerful therapeutic effect from tiny doses of lithium 20 to 40 times lower than the dosages routinely prescribed for patients with bipolar syndrome. Low doses of lithium it turns out are wonderfully healing for the brain it stimulates growth and regrowth and slows down the ageing process, the low dosage of lithium I take produces none of the emotional flattening people describe at high doses and does not require toxicity blood monitoring.
The combination of the above measures gave me the ability to keep an eye on my bipolar rapid cycling and switch off potential manic/depressive hijackings before they even got a hold of me and I was generally more stable but the effect of the condition had taken a toll on my brain and by my early 50s I began to notice quite marked signs of cognitive decline which is a known complication of bipolar syndrome and chronic depression. I had considerable loss in my hearing, the ability to do mental arithmetic and remember faces, qualities that I had always been strong at, I came to the conclusion that I was suffering from a loss of neuroplasticity from lack of the protein called BDNF which is the brains endogenous growth hormone. BDNF protects and preserves the health and lifespan of neurones and there’s a theory that when you have the combination of deficient levels of BDNF combined with elevated neuro-inflammation then you can get shrinkage and loss of function in the brain, in the loss of function using key structures of the brain that control mood it’s believed this either causes or at least contributes to depression/bipolar. This is known as the BDNF hypothesis of depression/bipolar but it also pertains to PTSD and OCD and the same process of diminish BDNF with elevated neuro-inflammation can equally cause loss of function in other parts of the brain that control cognitive function, hearing etc.
After more than a year’s research at the start of 2013 I devised a treatment plan to combat this problem, central to the BDNF hypothesis of depression/bipolar is that people with these conditions have elevated neuro-inflammation coming from over-activity in the brains stress responses (HPA axis) so I put myself on a brain training exercise to dampen down over-activity in my HPA axis whilst following a low inflammatory diet and taking an experimental combination of all the supplements and natural remedies was known BDNF boosting effects all together at the same time at the maximum safe dosage. The positive effects were spectacular and far more wide reaching than I had expected; within months my ability to do mental arithmetic and facial recognition return to perfectly normal levels but my hearing improved to a level that was better than in the 1980s, I base this on the observation that suddenly I began to understand the lyrics of pop songs I’d been humming to since the 1980s without previously understanding the lyrics and because I haven’t upgraded my hi-fi since the 90s it implies what I did was upgrade my brain. Moreover I had been reliant upon serotonin boosting remedies at least several days a week for over two decades but since undergoing my BDNF brain regenerating treatment I haven’t ever had to take them, I believe this to be because I have strengthened and regrown serotonin pathways in my brain, instead of just topping up the amount of serotonin in my synapses I grew more serotonin carrying synapses; I’ve had a similar significant reduction although not complete cessation in the use of dopamine boosting remedies. Furthermore I used to get at least six attempted
So there you have it, that’s basically how I learned to overcome bipolar syndrome. Today I have great mental health, I can’t hardly believe that I of all people would ever be able to say such a thing; my battle with mental illness had lasted more or less 35 years and tried to kill me more than twenty times. I still have bipolar syndrome and take a lot of pills every day to treat my condition but as long as I do I stay well.
If you are one of those people that like reading this stuff and want to read the rest of my mental health story from the age of 13 up to the text above click here.
If you want to see what I currently take on a daily basis click here.