Alternative and Complementary Medications

Turn into the vitamin and wellness aisle at any given store and you will find a number of options that are produced with the intention of helping people feel better, do better, and be better. While not all of the claims on the various bottles will be true for all patients, it is true that as bipolar patients become more involved in their healthcare and wellness plans, many may wish to incorporate more natural and holistic treatments into their medication regimen. 

Patients may turn to natural medications to supplement their prescriptions, or may choose this route if there are financial or other access barriers to traditional healthcare. Research into this area of care notes that those patients who fall into one or more of the below categories may successfully consider complementary and alternative herbal and vitamin treatments:

  • patients who do not respond to antidepressant treatment
  • development of intolerable side effects to first-line antidepressants
  • patients on medications which are necessary but causing side effects that could be alleviated by alternative approaches
  • mitigate effects of risk factors
  • those who want to explore the full range of services and options
  • patients who are in a situation in which there is no access to standard treatment
  • when the patient is uncomfortable with modern medications
  • patient cannot afford the cost of modern medication

While it is important to be an active participate in health decisions, patients should always:

  • Take medications as prescribed by your doctor and never stop taking medications/reduce the dose without talking to your doctor
  • Inform your doctor if you’d like to begin or stop taking any herbal or natural remedies, as there may be contraindications with current medication
  • Share any new symptoms or side effects with your doctor immediately

With these precautions in mind, it is worthwhile to consider if a natural medication/supplement may be a benefit to your treatment plan. Studies on herbal and supplemental medications are limited, especially with reference to patients dealing with bipolar disorder; however studies have been done that show the impact of the below on patients dealing with other forms of depression, and initial studies into bipolar-specific results are cautiously optimistic (Qureshi & Al-Bedah, 2013).

Over the Counter Complementary/Natural/Alternative Supplements

  • A supplement called SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) has been found to be effective in treating patients with depression and other mood disorders. Bipolar depression is different than other forms of depression, but preliminary studies are encouraging (Qureshi & Al-Bedah, 2013).
  • Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acids – A 2007 study by Goodwin & Jamison studied fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids showed “immense promise” in complementing other medicines that are being used to assist with bipolar and other mood disorders. The study did caution that the research in this area was primarily focused on fish oil’s impact on depression symptoms – it was not seen to be significantly effective for mania symptoms (Goodwin & Jamison, 2007 and WebMD, 2016).
  • Patients who are vegetarian or vegan but would like the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids may try walnuts, canola oil and flaxseed provide the body with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which will convert to fatty acids during digestion (WebMD, 2016).
  • Vitamins B, D, and folate have been shown to have significant, measurable results when used in combination with the other prescription medications. As with SAMe, studies related to bipolar specifically are limited but initial studies show that when methylfolate was added to patients’ regimens, there was a statistically significant increase in positive patient symptoms over placebo (Qureshi & Al-Bedah, 2013).
  • St. John’s Wort has long been touted as a supplement able to assist with anxiety and depression. St. John’s Wort has been used in clinical studies and treatments with success; however, it is important to note that as the dosage increases, so do potential side effects (which can include mania triggers). Patients must be careful and always discuss dosages with their doctors (Qureshi & Al-Bedah, 2013).
  • Rhodiola rosea has previously been utilized as an herbal supplement to treat mild to moderate depression. Studies have shown that it has impact on bipolar depression. Rhodiola rosea has been identified as a mild stimulant, so doctors recommend that it is taken early in the day to avoid nighttime sleep interruption, and caution that some users may experience jitteriness or racing heart. This drug can be a mild stimulant so it is important to take in the morning, especial for those with sleeping issues, to avoid nighttime sleep interruption. If those symptoms show up, patients should immediately contact their doctor.
  • While the research is too preliminary to consider it to be a valid complementary approach, the use of saffron and lavender herbs has been shown in some patients to assist with depressive states; however, the research has not yet demonstrated long-term conclusions (Querishi et al.)

  • Some research has shown that curcumin, found in the common spice turmeric may help reduce anxiety and depression by modulating certain neurotransmitters and improving neuroplasticity and cognition. 

It is important to note that alternative and complementary medications are not a singular treatment for mood or other psychiatric disorders. With bipolar having 


Alternative and complementary approaches are not a primary treatment for mood or other psychiatric disorders, but with careful consideration and discussion with your doctor, supplemental herbs and vitamins can be helpful. Research into the effectivity of complementary and natural treatments on bipolar disorder is still in development, so patients who are independently doing research should always be discussing this with your doctor or wellness team. However, with careful oversight and collaboration among your care team and treatment plan, alternative and complementary approaches have had some significantly positive impact and research results, and are a viable avenue for additional treatment practices.