The Mighty Logo

3 Ways I Manage the Gut Symptoms From My Bipolar Disorder

Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

In college, I sought out a gastroenterologist for my lifelong tummy troubles that seemed to be getting worse. We did a billion tests and didn’t find anything wrong, and at the end of the day my doctor gave me a prescription for antidepressants.

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably the type of person who sees an antidepressant prescription as a huge red flag. And it is (good job) but in this case, my doctor wasn’t writing off my very real symptoms. My stomach problems were all in my head. And my head problems were all in my stomach. Well, not all. But you get the play on words.

In the midst of this global pandemic, civil unrest and general horror that is 2020, it seems like a good time to talk about this. All of us are feeling the stress. All of us are experiencing some level of trauma. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has started spending a lot more time in the bathroom (and, unfortunately, using a lot more toilet paper).

Did you know that serotonin, a natural chemical that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being, is primarily located in your gut? About 90% of it, anyway. When people talk about “chemical imbalance” and mental health, you may picture these chemicals as being in your actual brain, when in reality these chemicals that contribute to mood and emotions are coursing throughout your entire body. It’s unfortunate that most people view mental health as separate from bodily health.

The point is that it’s important to take a holistic view of your health. The answer to your problems may not be where you think. In my case, I was experiencing undiagnosed bipolar disorder at the time. The biggest, most disruptive symptom at that time was stomach problems. Sometimes my appetite would just vanish. Other times I would feel hungry at normal times, then full after only a couple of bites. And worst of all, bowel issues. Sometimes it was constipation. Other times, the opposite. But I would be in the bathroom for upward of 30 minutes at a time, which is a real problem when you’re at work. And yes, the depression, anxiety and manic episodes were there too, but I can honestly say that stuff seemed mild in comparison.

My journey to that bipolar disorder diagnosis was eight years long, a story too long to tell here. Antidepressants didn’t fix the problem, but they were the start. The most important thing to come from that experience with that gastroenterologist was learning the connection between my mind and my gut. Now I know that when every food on this earth sounds unappealing, I should take an inventory of my emotional health. Yes, eating healthier foods and taking vitamins help some, but usually the digestive issues don’t go away until my mental state becomes balanced. Sometimes that means a change of medication. Other times it means giving myself a break, taking a day or two off. That extra self-care.

Like I mentioned, we’re currently all living under higher than usual stress levels. Maybe you’re not having toilet trouble, but you have noticed your mood is down. Maybe you feel unmotivated. Maybe you’re really struggling with the loneliness of quarantine life. Maybe you feel constantly on edge or restless. Maybe your sleep schedule is all over the place. I’ve experienced all of these things.

Now it’s time for the disclaimer: I’m not a health professional in any capacity. Anything written here should not be construed as medical advice. And mental health is serious and should be taken seriously. None of what I’m about to say is a replacement for therapy or medication. These are just some things I do that help my overall mood and sense of well-being, in addition to working with a professional to stay healthy in mind and body.

1. Eat Healthy

Knowing that 90% of serotonin lives in the gut, there is a lot I can do a lot to treat my symptoms of depression and anxiety. The first that helps me is probably the most obvious and least helpful: eat healthy. When I have no appetite, this can be very hard. And taking a daily vitamin supplement is a great way to make sure I get some nutrients if I’m having trouble eating enough.

2. Focus on Fiber

I know talking about bowels probably does nothing for an already skittish appetite, but this is important! You probably know that you need to be eating fiber, but did you know there are two kinds of fiber? When I’m having diarrhea or loose, watery bowel movements, I’m going to want soluble fiber — that means fiber that absorbs water. Think oatmeal. This really helps me clear everything out. If I’m constipated or feel heavy and full, I want insoluble fiber. This means roughage: salad and fruits. This is going to help things get moving.

3. Probiotics

We have bacteria growing in our guts. And that’s a good thing! That bacteria helps keep me healthy and happy. And if the bacteria in my gut is flourishing, it’s better at converting those
amino acids into sweet, sweet serotonin. And do you know what makes for a flourishing bacteria community in the gut? Probiotics!

I actually do eat Activia yogurt and it’s a great way for just getting daily probiotics. But when I need some probiotics STAT, I just buy a supplement. I can find them at any grocery store and they aren’t very expensive. My favorite are the Pearls. They’re tiny and easy to take. (By the way, this blog post is not sponsored by Pearls or Jamie Lee Curtis which is frankly, a huge bummer. But I do actually use these products.)

Eating healthy, focusing on fiber and taking probiotics helps me to take care of both my digestive and mental health. And during this time of high stress, it’s really important to do all I can for my emotional well-being.

Header image via Chinnapong/Getty Images

Conversations 2