Acupuncture as an Adjunct for the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder: a Case Study

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Mental health awareness week has come and gone, but before you pack away the ribbons and confetti for another year, I have a great case study on Bipolar disorder that got me really inspired to do more of this work. 


Bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic-depressive illness, is a brain condition characterised by extreme swings in mood, energy, and activity levels. Although we all have changes in mood and activation level, Bipolar is no ordinary mood swing. It can interfere with relationships, employment, and sometimes even the ability to carry out daily tasks. If severe or untreated, many people with this disorder will spend time in a mental health in-patient facility at some point. 


Such was the case for my patient Janine. In January this year, she visited my clinic looking for support. As is common with many bipolar patients, her illness was seasonal. It peeked in the springtime, with long periods of hypomania and sleeplessness. It would start as a sense of excitement, energy and enthusiasm that increased as the weather warmed. She slept less and less, until eventually couldn’t sleep at all for many days and sometimes weeks. Since being diagnosed with the disorder, the pattern never changed. Despite all her learned tools and strategies to manage the symptoms, it had been ten years since she had made it though spring without an episode. There were even years where she was admitted to hospital and other outpatient facilities. Because Janine is a professional, she needed to take sick leave during these times, as she was often unable to work. Although she was being seen by mental health professionals, and was stabilized on her medications, she was still having this repeated, cyclical episode.


This year, however, she added something new. 


Acupuncture’s ability to work on the central nervous system has been harnessed to treat many types of illness. However, it’s usefulness for mental health has been studied quite a bit in recent years, as acupuncture modulates mesolimbic dopamine neurons. In plain language, this means that the treatment makes changes in the parts of our nervous tissue which mediate stress and emotional regulation. For example it modulates the release and reuptake of several brain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, as well as some amino acids such as GABA. This may help to explain why I see it work so well in situations like Janine’s.


In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we have a concept about treating in remission. It’s based on an ancient principle: treating a disease once it has started is like digging a well when you already feel thirsty. Rather than treat the symptom while you’re in the middle of it, treat before it happens. 


Thus there is an advantage to cyclical illnesses, such as bi-polar, that we can anticipate and treat before the symptoms become acute. I applied this principle to Janine’s case, and thus started a run of weekly acupuncture treatments in January, fully four months before she anticipated the beginning of her sleeplessness. As the weather warmed, she felt her usual sense of excitement and enthusiasm. She had more energy and got busier. However, these feelings did not overflow into hypomania and insomnia. Janine didn’t have to increase or modify her medications. She enjoyed excellent sleep throughout the whole season and into autumn with no issues. This had not happened to her for over a decade. 


Janine is not alone in her story. Although mental illness can trigger feelings of isolation and loneliness, you are not alone. 1 in 5 Canadians will experience some form of mental health challenge in their lifetimes. If this sounds familiar, or if you or someone you know needs some extra support, call Acubalance and book a free 15 minute phone consultation. I’m always available for a chat.

Acupuncture for bipolar Vancouver, Acupuncture as an Adjunct for the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder: a Case Study