Medications for Bipolar Disorder: An Overview

Bipolar Medications Library

Prescription pad and pills
Jeffrey Hamilton / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Medications are the standard and proven treatment for bipolar disorder. Sometimes a patient can be stabilized on a single prescription drug, but more often a combination of medications - often called a "med cocktail" - is needed. The drugs included in that combination depend on each person's unique symptoms, body and brain chemistry, and other factors including such things as what prescriptions the patient is taking for other conditions.

Bipolar disorder medications fall into several categories:

  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Antianxiety drugs (antianxiolytics)
  • Sedatives

Mood Stabilizers for Symptoms of Mania and Hypomania

Mood stabilizers are the main treatment available for mania and hypomania. The first mood stabilizer to be used was lithium, and it is the only drug that was developed specifically for use in bipolar disorder. Today it is still mostly prescribed for bipolar patients, although it may be added to antidepressants for patients who suffer from clinical depression (no mania symptoms).

Most the other drugs classified as mood stabilizers are medications that were first used to treat seizure disorders, such as epilepsy. They are known as "anticonvulsants," since they are designed to inhibit or reduce the frequency of seizures. Interestingly, they also help stabilize mood swings.

Finally, some heart-related medications called calcium channel blockers are being studied for use in treating bipolar disorder as mood stabilizers.

Some of these drugs also have a positive effect on depression, but their primary purpose is to reduce the frequency and severity of mania and hypomania.

See Mood Stabilizers:


Antidepressant medications are also used to treat bipolar disorder.
An important thing to remember about antidepressants is that if they are not taken along with a drug that combats mania/hypomania, antidepressants can actually cause these conditions to appear. Many people who seem to be suffering only from clinical depression are diagnosed with bipolar disorder after taking an antidepressant and experiencing mania or hypomania as a result.

There are several antidepressant classes. The names of these classes reflect either their chemical structure or, more commonly, their effect on brain chemistry. The best known at present are the SSRIs and SNRIs which are, respectively, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.

Serotonin and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters - chemicals in the body that help the nerves pass along messages, and these medications help make more of these chemicals available. For more, see:

Other classes of antidepressants include the MAOIs - monoamine oxydase inhibitors - and tricyclics, which are named for their chemical structure.
There are also a few that do not fit into any of these classes and are thus called "atypical" antidepressants.

See More on Antidepressants:


Antipsychotic medications can eliminate or lessen the severity of symptoms like hallucinations and delusions; some also can decrease the symptoms of mania and/or help depression. There are two classes of these drugs: typical (the first-generation meds) and atypical (the second-generation meds). One has to wonder what the third generation, when developed, will be called!

See Antipsychotics:

Anti-Anxiety and Sedative Drugs

Anxiety and difficulty sleeping often go hand in hand with bipolar disorder. Anxiety can be a part of any type of episode - manic, mixed or depressive. The meds that treat anxiety are formally called antianxiolytics.

Most of the medications used to treat anxiety or promote sleep are classed as benzodiazepines, which include familiar brand names like Xanax and Valium, along with several others. Some drugs in other categories, such as antidepressants, may also have a sedating effect.

See Anxiety-Anxiety and Sedative Drugs:

Continue Reading