Bi-Polar or Just Hangry?

We used to call them “moody.”  Now we call them “hangry.”  I have even seen T-shirts with funny hangry messages on them.  

Sometimes, because I’m a psychotherapist, moody, hangry people ask me if they could be bi-polar.

Our Body on a Daily Roller-Coaster Ride

Bi-polar has nearly become a “fad” diagnosis.  In truth, it is a painful way to ride through life, often not knowing which version of yourself you might wake up to.  A true bi-polar diagnosis requires a lot of self-care and supportto maintain day to day functioning and relationships.  Because it is characterized by mood swings, it is often over-diagnosed too easily, without ruling out the most common reason for mood swings - blood sugar swings.

The term “hangry” is commonly used now, and these carbohydrate lovers can rarely go two hours without eating something to raise their blood sugar levels.  Why is this when others can eat every five or six hours with no mood swinging at all?

Donuts, Bagels and Your Snickers Bar

Nutrient-low carbohydrates (pancakes, toast, frappuccinos, donuts, bagels, bread, white potatoes, cookies, candy bars, etc) turn to sugar quickly, and cause high insulin production.  Insulin must grab the sugars and then proceed to store them as fat.  Because insulin is so present, the fat stays locked in the cells, unavailable for energy. For those who eat mostly carbs and are skinny, the body just constantly screams for more carbs because it is the source of energy it has come to expect and there is no other source available.

Besides mood swings, our carbohydrate-loving has also made pre-diabetes and diabetes rampant.  Over one-fourth of Americans age 65+ have some form of diabetes, and over half are pre-diabetic.  The scene behind insulin and glucose levels is complicated, however, the solution for reversing a pre-diabetic situation, and for maintaining health with diabetes, is the same.  And its all about the diet.  Notice I said “the solution” and not the treatment.  This is because many doctors will prescribe medication and not discuss diet change.  This could be called treatment but it is not a solution.

Diet as Solution

Dr. Ann Childers, a psychiatrist in her sixties who has dealt with diabetes over 12 years, used to nearly faint from low blood sugar and had to eat frequently throughout the day.  Once she received her diagnosis she learned everything she could about living well with diabetes and most of this was a change in her diet.

The transition to a diet that is not solely dependent on carbohydrates can be life-changing in many ways.  Maintaining a balanced blood sugar not only keeps moods from swing all over the place, but also impacts depression and anxiety symptoms.  When blood sugar is on a roller-coaster, so are you.  the constant ups and downs - I explain it to clients like a roller coaster at the first drop - are jarring for not only you but for relationships, productivity, sleep, hormone production, gut health….basically all aspects of health and therefore life.

Start with What is Possible

With a client, I usually start dietary changes with something that seems possible.  Remember that sugar is just as addictive as cocaine to the brain and so I never tell someone to just stop eating sugar (white flour foods are basically sugar and are included in this). A first step is to add protein and good fats (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil) into each meal.  While this could add more stored fat, it is usually a necessary transition to stabilizing blood sugar.  We can then lower the quantity of carbs in each meal and increase the quality of carbs - meaning switching to healthier sources than white flour and sugar.   Additional blood sugar disruptors include caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol and we usually have to address their use if they are being abused.   There are also supplements that can be helpful in stabilizing blood sugar and helping with insulin regulation. 

Address Bio-chemical Causes

Because many of the clients who walk in my door also have depression, anxiety, substance use or an eating disorder, my first line of action is also to address the bio-chemical causes of their sugar/carb cravings.  This is a necessary step so that changing the diet is even possible.

I am not minimizing a true bi-polar diagnosis to being solely about blood sugar; to be clear-I am saying let’s rule out the easiest root cause before we jump to a major diagnosis.

I have walked the painful journey with many bi-polar clients, and even though their diagnosis is not rooted in blood sugar swings, maintaining their blood sugar is something we always work on because it does minimize symptoms for them.  

Root cause resolution - not just symptom management.  A mantra that saves much heartache and struggle in the short time we have to live life to its fullest.