If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, your doctor might suggest taking mood stabilizers as part of your treatment program. Mood stabilizers, as the name implies, help reduce the symptoms of bipolar disorder by stabilizing a person’s moods and reducing mood swings. Mood stabilizers might be taken alone, but are most often taken in conjunction with antidepressants.
An Overview of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes a person to experience unusual and sometimes dramatic mood shifts. A person suffering from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, may also experience sudden changes in energy levels and changes in the ability to function normally.
While all people experience mood swings every now and then, the shifts that a person suffering from bipolar disorder experiences are severe and debilitating. Luckily, there are treatments available to help those who suffer from bipolar disorder.
Mood Stabilizers: How do They Work?
Researchers are still working to determine exactly how mood stabilizers work in the brain. It is believed, however, that mood stabilizers work by changing the levels of neurotransmitters in a person’s brain and by affecting how the neurotransmitters interact with the nerves in the brain.
Types of Mood Stabilizers
The two most commonly used mood stabilizers today are lithium and valproate:
- Lithium: Lithium was the first mood stabilizer approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of mania. Lithium is highly effective in controlling mania and depression.
- Valproate: The anticonvulsant medication valproate (brand name DepakoteÂ®) can stabilize moods. Valproate is often used in difficult-to-treat cases of bipolar disorder. The drug was approved by the FDA for the treatment of mania in 1995.
In addition to lithium and valproate, researchers are studying how well newer anticonvulsant medications stabilize moods. These medications include:
- gabapentin (brand name NeurontinÂ®)
- lamotrigine (brand name LamictalÂ®)
- topiramate (brand name TopamaxÂ®).
No matter which type of mood stabilizer your doctor prescribes, you will likely need to take it for an extended period, possibly even for years.
Side Effects of Mood Stabilizers
Before you begin your medication, your doctor will discuss the potential side effects. Common side effects of mood stabilizers include:
- dry mouth
- hair loss
- reduced sexual drive or performance
- weight gain.
When taking mood stabilizers, talk to your doctor about any side effects you experience. If you are experiencing negative or extreme side effects, your doctor might be able to prescribe a different medication or change your dosage.
You should never stop taking your medication or change your dosage without talking to your doctor. To do so could cause you to relapse, or could make your bipolar disorder symptoms more severe.
Risks Associated with Mood Stabilizers
Children and teenagers with bipolar disorder are most often treated with lithium. Valproate can also be used, but it has been linked to negative hormonal changes in teenage girls and polycystic ovary syndrome in women who start taking it before they are 20 years old.
Many mood stabilizers are linked to birth defects and developmental problems, so pregnant women should avoid them. Also, certain mood stabilizers are not safe for mothers who are breastfeeding.
People who have kidney, liver, heart or blood conditions or who are taking certain medications may not be able to take mood stabilizers.
Spearing, Melissa (updated 2007). Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved July 17, 2007, from the National Institute of Mental Health Web site: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/bipolar.cfm#bp6.
Tellioglu, Tahir, ed. (2006). Mood Stabilizers. Retrieved July 17, 2007, from the iVillage Total Health Web site: http://emotional.health.ivillage.com/