Carb Cravings and Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a week or two of rapid cycling recently. As often happens while I’m rapid cycling, after a week or so was hit by a killer migraine and an insane craving for carbs.

When I am rapid cycling (bouncing back and forth between low and high moods very quickly, often several times a day) I get extreme cravings for carbs. I go through huge bags of crisps and devour bread, potatoes, and chips like there’s no tomorrow. This tends to be at its worst after about a week of rapid cycling, and always coincides with a severe migraine. The result is that I eat a lot of carbs, my headache vanishes, and my mood seems to stabalise – for a day or so, if not indefinitely. The obvious downside to this ‘treatment’ of both my headaches and my moods is the fact that I’m eating massive portions, far larger than is healthy. This is a major contributor to my (extreme) weight gain.

I wanted to know why I (and many like me) crave carbs specifically. I know the medication I’m on is renowned for making cravings worse, but it doesn’t CAUSE the cravings, only exaggerates them. I’m also wondering why it is that I get them at this specific time.

My swings are caused by a change in brain chemistry. When rapid cycling brain chemistry switches back and forth very quickly. This is what causes the headaches – the brain isn’t used to such radical changes happening in such quick, repeated succession.

I find it curious that the body’s response to this is to crave carbs and, more so, that eating large quantities at this time genuinely helps – both with the headaches and the mood swings. I’ve been trying to fathom the reasons behind it for a while. This time, rather than Googling some more and struggling to make sense of it on my own, I called on three nutritional experts to see what they had to say on the subject.

Meet the Experts

Carb Cravings and Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder

Rachel Collins is a health and lifestyle coach, and was the first to come back to me with an answer on this one. While she was careful to note that it’s a topic that demands a longer conversation (which we did have, thank you, Rachel!), she was kind enough to give me a simplified overview of what might be going on here for me to share with my Bears.

Carb Cravings and Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder

Carbs break down as sugar in the body. Sugar is addictive. When you feed your body what it is addicted to it feels better temporarily, before demanding more.

It also sounds like cycling is exhausting – bouncing from one mood to another, from up to down, your body needs lots of energy to handle that. Carbs are going to be the fastest source of energy.

There could be so many different reasons for these patterns – it could be linked with your childhood diet and what you crave as a comfort food. It could be almost like a placebo effect, what you believe you need you crave. It could be linked with salt balance. It definitely sounds like hormones are playing up too…I can’t think of any nutritional reason why your body would actually need this type of food.

Nutrition expert Kate Knowler, The London Nutritionist had a few things to add regarding serotonin production. Serotonin is the main chemical in the brain linked to depression – too little causes depression. When I asked Kate about my carb cravings she had an interesting response:
Carb Cravings and Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder
Carbs are turned into serotonin in the brain, but it’s an addictive cycle and not as good as exercise for serotonin production… It [the Paleo diet] cuts out sugar and processed carbs, leaving you with unlimited veg, plus some meat and fish… A sure-fire way to balance blood sugars if you like a challenge… It’s less of a “diet”, more of a lifestyle…there are quite a few blogs of people who follow Paleo diet/lifestyle and have managed to stop medicating as it’s been so successful. Obviously any stopping of meds has to be done with GP support, but I’d say it’s worth a try for a month. Meal prep when you feel well enough will help. Otherwise, carry on eating carbs but make sure you eat protein (meat, fish, nuts, seeds, or egg) at every meal and snack. So if you grab a bag of crisps, have a small bit of chicken at the same time etc. That will go a long way towards balancing blood sugars
Great tip from Kate there regarding eating protein with every meal and snack, and one that Rachel later reiterated.
I’m delighted to welcome Rebecca Boulton back to the blog as part of this discussion. You can check out her guest post on nutrition and bipolar disorder here, and read on for her thoughts on bipolar and carbs!
Carb Cravings and Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder

There are a few reasons why sugar and carb cravings are worse with bipolar disorder.

1) Blood sugar balance is important to reduce food cravings and often people can forget to eat or grab the wrong things when they are busy or not in a good head space.

2) Serotonin levels are usually low in people with this disorder which leads to more severe cravings.

3) You’re more sensitive to dopamine, which is our pleasure neurotransmitter and therefore need more sugar and carbs to satisfy those cravings (this is a similar reaction to those that have addictions and why people say you can get addicted to sugar).

Stress also plays a part as when cortisol levels are high, you crave sweet foods and carbs, so when you say they are worse when you’re rapid cycling, that’s probably why. Obviously these are all just generalisations and its something that differs from person to person but I hope that provides some insight.

I would also look at your gut health as serotonin is produced there and when you have poor gut health, less is produced. When you have low gut flora or an issue with candida it can mean you crave certain foods.

This whole conversation certainly gave me a lot to think about and look into. Hopefully it will provide you all with some insights into your own carb cravings and eating habits. Be sure to comment below and share your own experiences, and any advice or information you may have on the subject. And if you have more questions about nutrition and health, check out these lovely ladies, all of whom are more than happy to help!

Huge thanks to Rachel, Kate, and Rebecca for taking the time to comment on this one!

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