Binoy was studying for his final year in engineering, when his parents noticed that he was becoming more and more prone to violent mood swings. For days he would be in high spirits, bubbling with energy, and then he would slow down and go to the other extreme, becoming lethargic, indifferent and depressed. In the beginning they attributed it to a teenager’s unpredictable behavior, but once it started affecting his studies and his relationships, they sought help. He was diagnosed as having a bipolar disorder also known as manic depression. It is an illness characterized by cyclical shifts in a in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. No particular cause has been found yet for bipolar disorder… people may be genetically disposed towards it. Factors like abnormal thyroid function, high levels of the stress hormone, and neurotransmitter imbalances, or lack of co-ordination between the right and left lobes may also cause this condition. In Binoy’s case, ‘mood stabilisers’ were prescribed, and they certainly helped to some degree. However, his parents wanted to try a holistic approach to the problem too, and decided to go for Ayurveda. They consulted one of the famed Ayurvedic physicians of Kerala, a state in South India, where Ayurveda has been a way of life for almost 5000 years.
The Ayurvedic Way
Traditional Ayurveda has no specific equivalent disease for the diagnosis of bipolar disorder written in the classical Ayurvedic texts. However, it offers a multitude of holistic tools and ways of approaching this disease that can restore health with herbal remedies and lifestyle changes. Fitting a set of symptoms into the diagnosis of a particular disease is not a prerequisite to treating it using Ayurvedic methods. According to the Binoy’s Ayurvedic physician, bipolar disorder is caused due to imbalances in the three fundamental biological qualities that govern the body -vata, pitta and kapha-as well as imbalances of the mental qualities that govern the mind- sattva, rajas and tamas. Generally speaking, the nature of bipolar disorder points to an underlying vata imbalance. In addition all patients suffering from bipolar disorder are likely to have low ‘ojas’ which can be defined as contentment, ability to cope, vitality and immunity.
The two main Ayurvedic treatments for managing bipolar disorder center on increasing ojas and reducing stress. The stronger a person’s ability to cope and withstand the things that cause us stress, the greater will be his or her ability to prevent wildly fluctuating moods. The help of Binoys family and friends was sought to identify situations that triggered stress in his case. In dealing with the doshas, vata must be balanced first. The main thing that helps both is to develop regular solid routines and stability. When the body is subject to irregularity, we will be prone to problems like indigestion and insomnia that put great stress on our bodies and reduce ojas.
The most important factor concerning meals is eating at regular times each day and also making sure not to go without eating. Foods that pacify vata are whole grains, cooked vegetables, green gram, fresh dairy, nuts and oils. The emphasis should be on sweet, sour and salty tastes, as well as warm, moist and heavy foods. Canned, frozen, old, processed, micro waved and rancid foods should be avoided. Coffee and other stimulants should be avoided too since they lead to more vata imbalance.
When treating bipolar disorder with herbal therapies, nervine tonics are the key to building stability and mental ojas. The remedies are personalized according to the constitution of the patient and the severity of the disease. Some generally good herb choices for tonics are ashwagandha, brahmi, shatavari, ginseng, shanka pushpi, nutmeg, skull cap, kappikacchu, haritaki and bhringaraj. Brahmi is a great choice for any mood state since it can both act as a mild stimulant and sedative depending on what mood state needs to be balanced. . All of these herbs should be taken with herbs that aid in their digestion and absorption. Since bipolar disorder is partially rooted in the nervous system, medicated ghees are an ideal medium for enabling these herbs to penetrate deeply into these tissues.
Yoga is also an important way to manage the disease. During a manic phase, it is advised to employ calming positions while energetic positions are for those who are in the depressive cycle. Proper breathing helps in controlling extreme mood swings too. In a depressive state, practice breathing sessions through the right nostril, while it helps to breathe through the left nostril during the manic phase. To sum up, Ayurveda is not a quick process and relies on the development of healthy routines and habits over a lifetime. It is therefore important for a patient already diagnosed as bipolar to continue with the treatments laid out by his or her existing physician. In fact, conventional western medicine can often provide the acute stability needed for the individual to work on developing Ayurveda’s long-term habits and routines. A year on an Ayurvedic treatment plan would be a reasonable minimal timeframe for a patient to follow before he or she should think of being weaned away from conventional medicines. The path is long and the journey is not easy… but for those who want total healing of mind, body and soul, Ayurveda can definitely help.