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Mood Stabilizers for Bipolar Disorder: Why They Help and Why It’s Important to Stay on Them

May 11, 2023 | Bipolar, Medication, Mental Health

While many people have a basic understanding of Bipolar Disorder, this condition is actually incredibly complex and challenging to cope with. The disorder, previously known as manic-depressive illness, is a mental health condition that affects a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function overall. People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of extreme highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). 

Treatment for the disorder requires a holistic approach and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That being said, mood stabilizers are medications commonly used to treat bipolar disorder, as they help to stabilize and balance moods. These medications are highly effective for most and can allow those with this crippling disorder to lead a normal, comfortable life.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder is a condition that affects about 2.8% of the U.S. adult population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is best characterized by episodes of mania or hypomania and depression, which can be severe and incredibly disruptive to daily life. 

Mania is essentially a state of elevated, irritable, or euphoric mood, energy, and activity that lasts for at least one week and causes impairment in social or occupational functioning. Hypomania is a milder form of mania, with similar symptoms but less severe and shorter in duration. 

Depression, by definition, is a state of low mood, decreased energy, and interest, and feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness that lasts for at least two weeks. This term is used commonly but is unique when used in reference to bipolar.

Bipolar Disorder is a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment and management in order to acquire a sense of normalcy. It can occur at any age but most commonly it develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. The disorder does run in families, and factors like stressful events, substance abuse, and medical conditions can trigger or worsen symptoms. Some researchers believe bipolar lays dormant and is only triggered when one of these events occurs.

What are Mood Stabilizers?

Mood stabilizers are a class of medications used to treat bipolar disorder and other mood disorders. They work by regulating the balance of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, that are involved in mood, behavior, and thought processes. This medication helps to reduce the frequency and severity of mood episodes, prevent relapse, and improve overall functioning and quality of life.

The most commonly prescribed mood stabilizers for bipolar disorder include:

  • Lithium – A naturally occurring mineral that has been used since the 1950s to treat bipolar disorder. It’s effective in reducing the risk of manic and depressive episodes and has been shown to have neuroprotective and anti-suicidal effects. Lithium requires regular blood tests to monitor levels and can have side effects such as thirst, tremors, and kidney problems.
  • Anticonvulsants – This group of medications was originally developed to treat seizures but has also been found to be effective in stabilizing mood. Examples include valproic acid, carbamazepine, and lamotrigine. Anticonvulsants can have side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and liver problems.
  • Atypical antipsychotics – These medications are used to treat schizophrenia but have also been approved for bipolar disorder. Aripiprazole, quetiapine, and olanzapine are some of the more recognizable names in this subgroup. Atypical antipsychotics can have side effects such as weight gain, diabetes, and movement disorders.
How do Mood Stabilizers Help?

Mood stabilizers help to regulate the abnormal highs and lows of bipolar disorder by modulating the activity of neurotransmitters and other signaling pathways in the brain. They can also help to prevent relapse and improve overall functioning and quality of life. Mood stabilizers are often used in combination with other treatments such as psychotherapy, support groups, and lifestyle changes.

Lithium, for example, has been shown to reduce the risk of suicide in people with bipolar disorder by up to 80%. It also helps to reduce the frequency and severity of manic and depressive episodes and improve social and occupational functioning. Lithium works by modulating the activity of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that is involved in mood regulation and brain plasticity.

Anticonvulsants such as valproic acid and carbamazepine can also help to stabilize mood by modulating the activity of neurotransmitters such as GABA and glutamate, which are involved in the regulation of mood, anxiety, and seizures. Valproic acid, in particular, has been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of relapse in bipolar disorder and can be used in combination with lithium for better outcomes.

Atypical antipsychotics, such as aripiprazole and quetiapine, can help to reduce the symptoms of mania and depression by blocking the activity of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain. These medications can be useful for people with bipolar disorder who have psychotic symptoms or who do not respond to other treatments. However, they can have significant side effects, like weight gain, diabetes, and movement disorders, and require close monitoring for safety purposes.

Why is it So Important to Stay on Mood Stabilizers?

Mood stabilizers are an essential component of the treatment of bipolar disorder, and it is crucial to stay on them as prescribed by a healthcare provider. Failure to take mood stabilizers as prescribed can lead to relapse, which can be severe and disruptive to daily life. Relapse can also increase the risk of suicide, hospitalization, and disability.

Staying on mood stabilizers allows people with bipolar disorder to improve their functioning and quality of life. Plus, it helps to reduce the risk of medical problems associated with bipolar disorder, like substance abuse, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

If a mood stabilizer does not feel like the right fit for you, be sure to consult with your doctor or other medical professional before making any changes. Abruptly quitting medication can be incredibly dangerous and should never be done without the supervision of a doctor. In many cases, switching to a new medication requires a slow and gradual shift. Finding the right fit is important, but must be done safely and with professional guidance. 

Final Thoughts

Working with a professional to find the right mood stabilizer and dose for individual needs is crucial for success. They also help as a form of support and to monitor for side effects and effectiveness. In conjunction with this, it is also important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a healthy diet. Minimizing stress and staying away from any harmful substances like alcohol are other helpful considerations.

Bipolar disorder and mood stabilizers go hand in hand as they are a crucial part of coping with this condition. Their role is to help stabilize mood, prevent relapse, and improve overall functioning and quality of life. Without this vital medication, living with bipolar can be unmanageable. Lithium, anticonvulsants, and atypical antipsychotics are commonly used mood stabilizers for bipolar disorder, and each works by regulating the balance of chemicals in the brain involved in mood regulation. 

Staying on mood stabilizers as prescribed by a healthcare provider is often essential in order to prevent relapse and reduce symptoms. Working closely with a healthcare provider and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help to optimize treatment outcomes and prevent medical complications associated with bipolar disorder.

New Dimensions Can Help!

New Dimensions provides psychological testing for bipolar disorder and has Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs for individuals who are struggling with bipolar disorder or other mental health issues.  To learn more about our programs, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at


Keywords: Bipolar disorder; Mood stabilizers; Bipolar; Medication for bipolar disorder; Lithium; anticonvulsants; antipsychotics