Causes of Bipolar

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There are no complete answers when it comes to what causes bipolar disorder. Doctors have a better understanding than they did ten years ago about some of the risk factors, treatment options, and the various forms that this mental illness takes, but there are still many unanswered questions.

What is known about bipolar disorder, or what was once termed manic-depressive disorder, is that there is a complete spectrum of mood states between the manic highs and depressive lows of this mental illness. The time between episodes can be days, weeks, months, or years, and swinging between highs and lows can take a long time, or be almost immediate.

What Are The Known Causes Of Bipolar Disorder?

There are many questions about what causes bipolar disorder. Doctors and scientists believe that there is a genetic link for the disease as the symptoms seem to run in families. You are at greater risk for bipolar disorder if there is a blood relative with the disease. The closer the relative, in other words if it is a mother versus an aunt, or sister versus a cousin, the more at risk you are for developing the disorder.

For a quiz that tests your understanding of mania, see here.

Scientists also believe that lifestyle choices and the environment can contribute to how severe bipolar disorder is in an individual. While these elements may not cause the disease, they can effect how severely someone is afflicted with the disorder. For instance alcohol and drug abuse can make bipolar disorder harder to treat. There is some debate on whether substance abuse can make you bipolar, or if you have genetic ties to bipolar disorder and use drugs and alcohol it will just make it worse.

Knowing that bipolar disorder has some genetic, neurochemical, and environmental risk factors doesn’t provide all the answers as to the possible causes of bipolar disorder. There is still the puzzle of how these elements interact and if there are other things that could cause this mental illness to develop or get worse. Many scientists believe that for the most part bipolar disorder occurs due to the failure of chemical messengers in a specific part of the brain.

The genetic markers for this malfunction may stay dormant unless it is triggered by stress, lifestyle choices, or somehow spontaneously activates. In understanding bipolar disorder it is important to look at what scientists and doctors do know.

Bipolar Disorder Facts and Figures

Scientists know that bipolar disorder runs in families. The figures indicate that half of the people who have the mental illness have a family member who has been diagnosed with a mood order like depression. If the tie is as close as a parent, they have a 15-25 percent chance of having bipolar disease. If a twin is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the other twin has a 25% chance of developing the condition if they are not identical. If the twin is an identical twin this risk increases eight times.

There have been studies of adopted twins, where the biological parent had bipolar disorder and the adoptive family didn’t have the disease, which helped researchers determine that the genetics definitely play a role in developing the disease.

Scientists also believe that bipolar disorder may be caused by the dysfunction of specific neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, in a particular area of the brain. They believe these chemicals might include norepinephrine, serotonin, and possible several more. This chemical problem or biological disorder could just rest in the body, and then be activated by some physical or psychological stress. Or it may just activate on it’s on. Sometimes doctors can pinpoint a stressor that they believe may have activated this dormant condition in an individual, and sometimes they can’t.

When there are no clear genetic indicators of this illness it is believed that hormonal issues, or lifestyle changes that include drug or alcohol abuse could trigger bipolar episodes. Many doctors don’t believe that substance abuse on its own cause bipolar disorder, but they do believe it can trigger the dormant condition and make the disease harder to treat.

Severe life stress, for instance the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, or some other psychological stressor could also trigger bipolar disorder. This illness is showing up in much younger children than ever before. Many believe that this is due in part to the disorder not being correctly diagnosed in the past, and some believe that there could be an environmental or social factor that isn’t yet understood.

Another cause of bipolar disorder is called medication-triggered mania. This occurs when antidepressants are taken by someone that has a genetic disposition to bipolar disorder and the medication triggers a manic episode. It is important that doctors understand your medical history and if bipolar disorder or depression runs in your family before they prescribe treatment. If bipolar disorder runs in the family the doctor may also prescribe an antimanic drug along with the antidepressant.

There are additional medications that can produce a manic-like high. The symptoms would be a decreased need for sleep, increased energy, and increased talkativeness or socialization. The medications that can cause this symptom include:

  • Appetite suppressants
  • Cocaine
  • Designer drugs that include Ecstasy and amphetamines
  • Over medicating with certain cold preparations
  • Excessive caffeine


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