How to Treat Common Side Effects of Bipolar Medication

pills
A picture of a green prescription bottle with pink pills spilling out of it. Credit to flickr.com user Rakka. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Trigger Warning: Discussions of suicide.

To treat bipolar disorder, adhering to a medication regime is crucial. The medications used to treat bipolar disorder are antidepressants, antipsychotics, antidepressant-antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, and mood stabilizers. Downing your pills day after day keeps you from becoming manic, or worse, suicidal. But some side effects to medications are difficult to deal with. But there are better ways to deal with side effects than simply stopping your medication.

A Dangerous Side Effect: Suicide

A dangerous but very rare side effect of bipolar medication is suicide. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has placed warnings on anticonvulsants–which are sometimes used to treat bipolar disorder–and antidepressants, especially in the case of adolescents taking them. Antidepressants aren’t frequently used to treat bipolar due to the risk of inducing rapid cycling or mania. Anyone starting these medications must be monitored closely by a treatment team looking out for worsening depression or the resurgence of mania.

The antidepressants mirtazapine (Remeron) and venlafaxine (Effexor) were found to increase the risk of suicidal or self-harming behaviors, according to a 2010 study. Also in the class of antidepressants that increase these risks are all selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

Side Effects That Tend to Diminish Over Time

Many of the side effects of bipolar medications are temporary, and will diminish over time. While all medications and individuals taking them are different, side effects that tend to be temporary include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Digestive issues, such as diarrhea and constipation
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred Vision
  • Rashes
  • Rapid Heartbeat
  • Nausea, bloating, or indigestion

Side effects of bipolar medication should be reported to a doctor, as they could be indicative of a larger issue.

Managing Other Common Side Effects

Other side effects of bipolar medication can be tolerated or treated with lifestyle changes. Some common side effects and the ways to manage them are;

  • Dry mouth: treated with an over-the-counter gum or spray. Sucking on ice chips also helps
  • Sexual issues: treated by reducing the dosage of medications used, changing medications, or using sexual aids
  • Sensitivity to the sun: use sunscreen or protective clothing, or stay out of the sun entirely
  • Sensitivity to cold: avoid cold weather and dress more warmly
  • Joint and muscle aches: ibuprofen and other over-the-counter pain relievers may be used
  • Menstrual issues: birth control may be prescribed
  • Anxiety or restlessness: changing medication dosages or adding a drug can reduce this side effect. Yoga may also help
  • Heartburn: treated by changes in diet and exercise, but over-the-counter and prescription meds are used as well
  • Increase in blood sugar, Diabetes: medications used to manage the blood sugar can be taken to lessen this side effect
  • Acne: medication is available to treat this side effect
  • Mood swings: adjusting dosages and types of medications taken is generally the only way to handle this side effect
  • Weight gain: see mood swings. I will be covering weight gain specifically in a future post.

The Bottom Line

Side effects of medications are an unfortunate and expected part of treating bipolar disorder. Fortunately, most side effects can be managed, or diminish over time.

If you suffer from intolerable side effects, talk to your doctor about how to manage them better. Don’t stop taking your meds without a doctor’s approval, and never stop taking bipolar medication immediately. Treating your bipolar disorder is worth dealing with side effects. For example, it’s better to manage acne than to have to pick up the pieces after a manic episode.

Good luck!0

Author: Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs weekly at the award-winning Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. She also blogs monthly at the International Bipolar Foundation website (IPBF.org). Her work has been published in the anthology, How the Light Gets In. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism. She has been a judge for the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association literary contest for nine years, where her memoir, Committed, recently placed as a finalist. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.

10 thoughts on “How to Treat Common Side Effects of Bipolar Medication”

  1. This is another excellent, post, Cass! As you know, I had the rare reaction (acute suicidal ideation) to the tricyclic antidepressant Elavil/amitriptyline. But I know that med helps other people – when it comes to trying meds, it’s such a Russian Roulette type of thing, isn’t it?
    I hope you & your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  2. I don’t take any antidepressant anymore, but when I did: two suicide attempts. I read up on the side effects and decided I didn’t want to take that horrible chance again, if the meds were part of the cause. I battle my bipolar now with lithium and neurontin. When I get depressed, my doc has raised my neuronin dose and I was quickly out of the depression twice.

    1. Welcome, Magnum! I’m so sorry to hear about your suicide attempts, and I’m glad that you are managing your bipolar disorder with lithium and neurontin. The side effect of suicidal thoughts is so very dangerous, and I’m glad that you are able to handle your mental illness without antidepressants. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. I’m interested in the historical record all them about mental illness. I suspect that coping skills have been known all along, e.g., healthy body healthy mind, and vice versa.

Share Your Thougts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s