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ECT, Herbs, and Alternative Treatments

Visit the BPhoenix Alternative Healing Advice Column.

In recent years much research has been done on alternative treatments for bipolar and depression. Traditional medications do not work for everyone, and scientists, doctors, and patients have been searching for new ways to treat the symptoms of these disorders. None of the treatments listed in this section of the website are intended to replace the care of your doctor or mental health professional, and they should be tried only under the supervision of someone specifically trained to administer these treatments.

Unfortunately, many holistic or alternative therapies are not yet covered under most insurance plans. Hopefully this will change in the near future as more studies are proving just how effective these treatments can be.

Below are some alternatives to traditional medication that may be covered by your insurance provider.

ECT (electroconvulsive therapy):

ECT is very effective in the treatment of depression, psychosis, and infractable mania, and is unsurpassed by any other treatment in psychiatry. Severely depressed patients who are not responding to antidepressant therapy are at serious risk of attempting suicide. These patients may respond very well to treatment with electroconvulsive therapy.

ECT has evolved over the years into a safe option for bipolar patients. Modern procedure involves the administration of a general anesthetic and a short-acting muscle relaxant. The patient is asleep and feels nothing during the treatment. This new approach to ECT does not cause the body to convulse, nor does it cause broken bones or substantial memory loss like it once did. Patients suffer little chronic memory loss and wake feeling only slightly confused and tired. A benefit of ECT is that it is safe for use during pregnancy. Most drugs are not.

Light Therapy (phototherapy):

Light therapy was originally studied for its effects on seasonal affective disorder (SAD). People suffering from SAD notice an increase in the amount of sleep required and a drop in their mood during the winter months when the amount of available light is less. When the days become longer during the summer and the amount of sun exposure increases, their mood and energy levels return to normal. This led researchers to believe that sunlight was directly linked to mood disorders.

Dr. Normon Rosenthal at the National Institute of Mental Health found that positioning his SAD patients in front of a bank of full-spectrum, high-intensity lights lifted their depressive symptoms. Bright light can shift the phase of circadian rhythms and manipulating these phase shifts is proving to be helpful in treating the depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder.

It is possible for patients to purchase light boxes for 200-500 dollars for their home to use daily or as needed. For more information on this alternative to traditional bipolar treatments please visit Apollo Light Systems Inc at

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS):

TMS is an experimental therapeutic technique similar to ECT that appears to be effective in treating affective disorders. It is much simpler than ECT to use and seizures are not induced so no anesthesia is required.

TMS delivers an electrical stimulus to the brain without applying electrical energy to the scalp. A magnetic coil is held against the head and the magnetic field that develops in the coil causes an electrical current to flow through neurons within the skull. No electricity passes through the skull and the patient remains awake during the entire procedure.

Studies indicate that the left prefrontal cortex of the brain is less active in depression and TMS stimulates the cortex, thereby decreasing the symptoms of depression.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS):

Studies have shown VNS to be effective in treating recurrent or chronic unipolar depression, and more studies are soon to begin in the US to determine its effectiveness at controlling the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

VNS involves implantation of a generator that stimulates the Vagus nerve and reduces seizure activity in the brain. Stimulation of the limbic system also occurs, altering mood, motivation, sleep, appetite and alertness.

The procedure is performed under general anesthesia. A neurosurgeon implants the device in the upper left area of the chest. A connecting wire is run under the skin from the device to the Vagus nerve in the left side of the neck. The procedure normally lasts 1-2 hours, with the patient being released the same day to return home.


This treatment involves inserting little needles into certain trigger points in the body. This therapy might prove to be a useful adjunct to medication, enabling patients to reduce the amount of medication required to stabilize their disorder.

Studies are currently underway in the United States to ascertain the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating bipolar patients.

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Alternative therapy pages last reviewed or updated 12/07/07

All information contained in this web site is strictly for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for consultation with your medical doctor or psychiatrist.
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This Site Updated 04/09/11