Bipolar Disorder and Alcoholism | Scripps Research Institute

Bipolar disorder and alcohol use disorder often occur together and the relationship between the two is complex. As with any mental illness, people suffering will typically turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate as a way to temporarily relieve their symptoms to help them feel better. Genetics also play an important role in both bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and if you have family members who suffer from either disorder, you may be more likely to develop those disorders as well. People who suffer from both bipolar disorder and alcoholism are considered to have a dual diagnosis, which means they should be treated medically, and at the same time, for both disorders. Here is everything you need to know about bipolar disorder and alcoholism.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to perform everyday tasks. The different mood states of bipolar disorder vary from feeling extremely up or euphoric, to feeling persistently irritable, to feeling very down, sad, and depressed.

Bipolar Disorder and Alcoholism

Bipolar Disorder and Alcoholism

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder.

Everyone experiences a variety of emotions daily; just because you have intense episodes of happiness, sadness, anger, or frustration does not mean you suffer from bipolar disorder. However, someone who meets the criteria to be diagnosed bipolar will be completely consumed and controlled by these emotional episodes - they will temporarily take control over their lives. There are two major types of mood episodes that someone suffering from bipolar disorder will experience: mania and depression. 


Mania is a distinct period of mood elevation that comes with high energy and activity levels or it may present as a persistently irritable mood. Some symptoms of a manic episode include inflated self-esteem, rapid talking, decreased need for sleep, distractibility or an increase in goal-directed behavior.  People experiencing a manic episode often have racing thoughts and others may notice they are talking faster than usual and jumping from topic to topic. Manic episodes also impair decision making and this can lead a person to engage in risky behaviors that they would not normally engage in, such as shopping sprees or sexual indiscretions. This abnormal change in mood is called a manic episode and it can last for weeks or even months, and can be very disruptive in a person’s life.

Depression is the emotional state at the low end of the bipolar spectrum and is often characterized by feelings of sadness and despair or by loss of interest or pleasure in every day activities. These episodes can last for days or weeks and are very dangerous for people with bipolar disorder who also suffer from addiction, because they are at a higher risk of self-injury and suicide. Some symptoms of depression include feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, sleep problems, changes in appetite, and suicidal thoughts. People suffering from a depressive episode will feel very tired and may not have any desire to participate in activities they would usually find pleasurable. People typically have a difficult time concentrating or may experience trouble making decisions during these types of episodes. Severe episodes of depression can even trigger psychosis.

Woman bipolar and alcohol

Woman bipolar and alcohol

The Relationship Between Bipolar Disorder and Alcoholism.

Studies have found that people with bipolar disorder are three times more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol, but why is that? There are multiple theories that attempt to explain the relationship between alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder, but the specific link between the two is not fully understood. One common assumption is that people suffering from bipolar disorder, or any mental illness, are much more likely to self-medicate with substances like alcohol that temporarily make them feel good. Unfortunately, studies show that drinking alcohol may trigger the manic or depressed moods that people suffering from bipolar disorder often experience. Age and gender also play a role in this relationship because it seems that young men are more likely than women or older men to take dangerous risks, like drinking alcohol or participating in drug use. Genetics and brain chemistry also seem to play major roles in both bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse. The lack of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in people suffering from bipolar disorder affects important bodily functions including mood and emotions, so people with bipolar disorder are more likely to turn to alcohol because they think it will help stabilize their mood. When people suffering from any mental illness turn to alcohol, it makes it much harder to diagnose and treat both the addiction and the mental illness, which is why these people have a harder time getting the help they need.

drunk and bipolar

drunk and bipolar

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder and Alcohol Addiction.

The first step to getting help for both bipolar disorder and alcoholism is to be diagnosed by a professional. Often times, these people are diagnosed with bipolar disorder after they start their path to recovery from alcohol addiction. Medical professionals will sometimes mistake bipolar symptoms with alcohol abuse because they can look similar, so once the alcohol is taken out of the equation, the bipolar symptoms become more clear. It is incredibly important that people suffering from mental illness, like bipolar disorder, and alcohol addiction get treatment for both disorders at the same time, otherwise they will continue to struggle to get the help they need. The goal with treatment is to help a person keep their mood, energy levels, and behavior more balanced. Oftentimes, a combination of medications is best for people suffering from bipolar disorder to help keep their moods balanced so they can experience a more normal day-to-day life.

As you can see, suffering from either addiction to alcohol or bipolar disorder is incredibly hard, but the combination of both disorders can be deadly if not treated. The first step to getting help is to reach out to a professional and talk openly about the symptoms you experience. Sobriety is incredibly important when it comes to getting properly diagnosed for any underlying mental illness, so doctors can define the ongoing symptoms and see that they are not solely related to alcoholism. 

To find out more about our 12-week alcohol treatment study in San Diego, call us at (858) 784-7867 (STOP). Also, if you are a frequent drinker with no intention of quitting alcohol, call to find out if you’re eligible volunteer for a 5-week, paid research study that aims to develop new medications for those suffering from alcohol use disorder.

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