What Are the Causes of Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar for Beginners - Part 2

the brain's neural network
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Nobody knows absolutely what causes mental illnesses. Studies have made it clear that there is a genetic component to bipolar disorder, but nobody's saying that's all there is to it. Although there's a high likelihood that when one identical twin has bipolar, the other will, too - that's not always the case. One may develop bipolar while the other lives life entirely symptom-free.

It's a puzzle that scientists want to solve.

You may be reading this because you want to know why. Why do I have bipolar disorder? Why does my wife, my child, my friend, my co-worker have it? What's going on in the brain that causes the shifting symptoms and the rolling moods? While there are no absolute answers, there's a lot that is known about the causes of bipolar disorder. We'll start with a comprehensive look at the best theories out there.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

Heredity? Abnormality? Stress? Punishment? Childhood trauma? Toxins? Lack of faith? Karma? I've heard them all -- and a lot more. If you believe in karma, then it can't be ruled out, but that still doesn't explain what's going on in your brain. It's hard to believe modern-day toxins are to blame when descriptions of bipolar people can be found that are almost two thousand years old. There is still a "pray harder to get well" school of thought regarding mental illnesses, and for a truly terrible (though uncommon) experience with a so-called Christian therapist, read Counseling from Hell.

Research is ongoing to determine the causes of bipolar and other mental disorders. We'll start by looking at the best information science currently has.


1. Genetic Susceptibility to Bipolar Disorder
Genes are the building blocks of the DNA that controls everything about what we are born with, from eye, hair and skin color on to certain birth defects and inherited illnesses.

Perhaps the best known genetic illnesses are those that affect the Ashkenazi Jews, and also Huntington's disease (links to info at end). This short report, Scientists Uncover New Genetic Susceptibility to Bipolar Disorder, talks about one of the latest discoveries that may help unlock the mysteries.

2. How Likely Is Bipolar an Inherited Disorder?
This question has been researched a lot. The bottom line is that parental bipolar disorder does significantly increase the chances that a child will develop it, too. Will My Child Inherit Bipolar Disorder? speaks specifically about the likelihood based on the parents.

3. What Causes Bipolar Disorder?
Let's start putting it all together now. Yes, there's a genetic factor - but even in identical twins, one can develop bipolar while the other does not, so there must be more to it than that. The most important other factor, scientists believe, comes from life stress. What Causes Bipolar Disorder? looks at the best theory researchers now have.


1. Emotional Stress
There are many diverse emotional stresses that can trigger mental illnesses in susceptible individuals. Many of our readers have told stories of how emotional stress brought on bipolar symptoms:

2. Physical Stress
Physical stress is also a potential trigger. It might be a serious illness or accident, a medication, or a long period of not getting enough sleep. Here are some stories that illustrate the effects of such physical stress leading to bipolar symptoms:

3. A Combination of Emotional and Physical Stress:
One Huge Argument - Spiraling Symptoms comes from a mother whose symptoms began with a terrible argument between herself and her husband, and then were triggered further by antidepressant treatment.

Inside the Brain

1. Messengers of the Brain
Specific chemicals in the brain are suspected to play an important part in the presence of some mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder. Research continues steadily in this area as tools become more sophisticated. Brain imaging is finding differences between activity in the brains of people with and without bipolar disorder. Drugs that affect certain chemicals have been found to ease symptoms even though it's not certain why. Messengers of the Brain explains the neurotransmitter system.

2. Terms to Know About the Brain and Bipolar Disorder

It's REALLY Not All In Your Head

Judge Rules Bipolar Disorder a Physical Illness
Good news! While it will probably be a long time before the general public at large understands this, some help is on the way. Early in 2002, a United States District Court judge ruled that bipolar disorder is a physical illness and therefore is not subject to mental illness insurance limits. While this case doesn't set a legal precedent, and the Affordable Health Care Act may make the insurance issue a moot point, it's real recognition that there are physical causes for bipolar illness that affects the mind.