Newly Diagnosed with Bipolar? Sleep Is Nature’s Medicine—and It’s Free!

Last Updated: 24 Jun 2020

Medications that treat bipolar help with acute symptoms and can save lives, but, overall, lifestyle changes that are free and available to everyone—such as properly managing our sleep—create the best outcomes for those of us with bipolar. 

sleep as a bipolar treatment

Bipolar Medication & Lifestyle Management

I use medications for bipolar disorder, and I support medications when needed. They save lives. But when you’re first diagnosed, there can be such an emphasis on medications that basic and very effective natural, lifestyle-based treatments are rarely discussed in detail. It is vital to consider these changes to your daily habits and routines that can have a significant impact on your bipolar and your quality of life.

My #1 Natural Solution for Bipolar Treatment

The number one lifestyle-based solution that people of any age can use to keep bipolar mood swings under control is managing our sleep. 

Why? Because—besides not having good sleep routines and sleep hygiene in the first place—the major triggers of bipolar disorder usually involve changes to our sleep schedules and sleep quality: 

  • Substance abuse
  • Shift work or working nights
  • Travel in different time zones
  • Planning for an exciting event
  • A new baby
  • Stimulating products such as caffeine and natural energy boosters

Learning about sleep’s importance and managing sleep triggers can change our lives so profoundly that I list sleep as my #1 natural solution for bipolar.

How to Use Sleep to Manage Bipolar Disorder

#1 Learn about circadian rhythms and how the body creates the hormones serotonin and melatonin to promote sleep.

There is a reason that people sleep when it’s dark and work when it’s light. It follows the body’s natural hormonal rhythm. Our bodies start to produce the calming, sleep-inducing hormone melatonin as the sun starts to set, and then it produces the more stimulating and energetic hormone serotonin as the sun rises. (Please note that serotonin is considered a neurotransmitter and a hormone.)

This explains why life is SO hard for humans when it’s dark all of the time or light all of the time! Our bodies are our teachers. When we listen to our natural hormonal sleep messages, bipolar is calmed. People without bipolar can mess with this rhythm without getting sick. We rarely can. Sleeping when it’s dark and waking when it is light is a natural process. If you live in a climate that doesn’t promote natural light-and-dark rhythms, use this rule of thumb: Look at your sleep schedule as medicine that you take at the same time every day. 

# 2 Go to sleep on the same day that you woke up.

I heard this on a podcast about sleep many years ago, and it stuck with me. It’s a simple guide to managing our moods, and it helps us create a plan. When we wake up around 7 AM and sleep around 11 PM, that routine supports our natural body clock. Of course, it’s difficult! Nothing about this illness is easy, but I have found that sticking to this no matter where I am in the world helps enormously. A strong focus on sleep promotes waking early and allows the body’s natural serotonin to help the mood if it is down and promotes sleeping at night when melatonin is most effective to help calm mania. 

#3 Avoid substances that create sleep changes.

Believe me, I know how hard this is, but if we really want to manage bipolar, we need to manage substances that affect sleep. Energy drinks are filled with sleep-altering substances, including caffeine and sugar, but, more importantly, mood-stimulating amino acids. These make people without bipolar feel good—and make those of us with bipolar feel TOO GOOD or TOO AGITATED. It helps to identify all caffeine drinks, stimulating supplements, and other substances that increase energy as problems due to the sleep changes they can create.

#4 Make natural and healthy sleep a focus of healthcare appointments.

It makes so much more sense to focus on good sleep than continuing with poor sleep behaviors and adding more meds on top of that poor lifestyle in an effort to feel better. Let’s find a balance between what we can do naturally and what is suggested by medicine. I definitely use sleep meds when needed. They are a complement to my focus on using sleep to manage my ever-changing moods. But meds are secondary. Good sleep choices come first. (If you’re a female experiencing midlife hormonal changes, make sure your psych doctor knows.) 

Sleep & Work

I want to succeed in my business. I love what I do, and I love to travel the world, teaching people about bipolar management. 

You probably LOVE to do something as well. Unfortunately, in my bipolar world, love isn’t reality. Love is simply a feeling. I have bipolar, so I have to ask myself CAN I succeed in my business and travel the world and… still stay stable?

At this time, the answer is no. The time changes are too much for my brain and, to be honest, they always have been. I used to get manic, fly to China or Japan or Korea or Thailand on a wave of excitement, and then, within a few days, I was weeping while walking down the street. I never understood it. Now I do.

Bipolar is a circadian-rhythm-affected illness. Going from Seattle to China is too much for my system.

A few months ago, I was asked to fly to New York to be on a fab podcast. I live in Portland, Oregon—about as far from New York as you can be in the States! I thought the experience would be worth the inevitable downswing I would experience. I did everything right to make the trip a success. EVERYTHING. The recording was fantastic. But … I was sick for a month after I returned.

It was too much for my brain. Simply too much. I would have been SO much better off if I had done the interview remotely. No, it’s NOT exciting. No, it’s NOT fun, but is a month of illness due to a time change worth a one-hour interview? No. I won’t do it again. 

A Question of Desire vs. Stability with Bipolar

There is a question I have to ask myself—and one you have to ask yourself—if we want to stay stable:

Even if I want to do something,
CAN I actually do it without getting sick? 

I could never have a job that required travel. I would not survive. I could never have a job that meant working nights. I can’t work overtime. This is my bipolar reality, which I talked about in a different blog. It’s an ongoing process to accept that time changes and sleep disruptions affect my brain negatively. But I have to put my brain health first. 

What if we simply decide to Treat Bipolar First, learn about sleep and bipolar, and then accept that each decision involving sleep and bipolar is made individually. Thinking before every change in life is not a fun way to live, but believe me, it creates a foundation for staying stable—and stability is fun. 

You are the detective tracking your bipolar symptoms. You are the master of your life and your symptoms. Taking charge of your sleep is FREE.  My prescriber once said to me, “Julie, sleep is nature’s medicine!” 

I agree. 

It’s like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”: Not too much sleep. Not too little sleep, but always striving for a balance that feels just right.

There is a chapter dedicated to sleep in my book Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, as well as a chapter on triggers.

I’ve used this system for 30 years, and it’s still evolving. You can learn to manage bipolar disorder naturally.

You can feel better. 


About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at and
  1. I really hate this disease. It’s a curse a death sentence. If it weren’t for my strong belief in god, I don’t know what I would do or where I would be. I want to die.

  2. I agree with this I was one of youngest people diagnosed with bi polar as I was 12 years old in the 80’s. I hated being on medication so I took myself off of all of them almost 3 years ago, I still go through my mood swings but to this day I firmly believe that before bi polar was ever a diagnosis people figured out ways to handle it and still be members of society and so can I. I still have people that don’t understand it and think that just because I can’t sit or stand still then I must be high on drugs but nope it’s just my manic coming out. I live in Portland Oregon as well I was diagnosed in Bremerton WA back in 1987-88

  3. Same with me. I hate taking any of my bi polar meds
    I find myself groggy, nauseous, dizzy, sick to my stomach
    I also go into a panic attack every time I have a med change. I have pretty severe bi polar symptoms by the meds freak me out.
    Anyone else feel like this or relate to how I feel?

  4. I recently just moved to a new city in an apartment. I can’t sleep. I’m don’t know what to do. I start my new job next week. I was living with my mom at her house in the country. Please help.

  5. Julie, I always love your articles! Sleep hygiene, definitely important! My daughter suffers so, I just gave her a list of what works for me, go to bed and get up at the same time every day, no party, party, party, EVER! Not worth it! Dont drink alcohol, it doesn’t play nice! Take your medicine, even if you don’t feel like you need it, you do! Keep all your appointments, go to therapy, and most important, DON’T treat your friends as your therapists! She always has some excuse, well, after this weekend, I will stop drinking, or, after I do this I will start going to bed on time or whatever. You can lead a horse to water, but, you know the rest! Thank you for your articles, I often share them with her.

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