Bipolar Disorder: Stress, Cortisol, Prevention

“Okay, we made the decision to have a child knowing I have bipolar disorder. What can we do to minimize Emma’s risk?”

Genetic predispositions to emotional and mental health disorders are the real deal. But a predisposition doesn’t equate to a future diagnosis.

It’s often a matter of side-stepping a disorder by making environmental adjustments.

Here’s an example. An infant may come into this world with a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse and dependence. However, if she/he never drinks a drop (the environmental adjustment), the disorder won’t present.

Stress, Cortisol, and Bipolar Disorder: Cutting-Edge Research

No big surprise – genetic predisposition is a factor in the development (I didn’t say for-sure diagnosis) of bipolar disorder. And a Canadian research team has come up with one such predisposition.

Theirs is the first study to show that elevated cortisol levels are much easier to come by for a child of even just one bipolar parent (vs. a child with neither parent bipolar).

These over-the-top cortisol levels manifested as a result of an environmental factor – exposure to typical childhood life-stressors. So you could say that these children are genetically predisposed to poor stress coping abilities – as well as bipolar disorder.

(Incidentally, research tells us that children who have just one parent with bipolar disorder are four times more likely to develop a mood disorder. That could be bipolar disorder or unipolar depression.)

Interestingly enough, the research team had already determined that cortisol levels of children with a bipolar parent ran higher than non-bipolar-parent children.

They did more work with these very same children – measuring cortisol levels during chronic and one-time stress episodes. And they found reactionary cortisol levels were unusually high, as well.

So it’s a matter of a biological sensitivity to stress, and the subsequent cortisol spike. And that may well explain why these children develop a mood disorder(s).

No matter how you cut it, the stress/cortisol issue is a major indicator of future illness.

I want you to be able to fully understand the relationship between stress and cortisol. I posted an article yesterday with a ton of valuable information. To get the most from this piece it’s really important that you read it. Click here and you’re there.


According to the study’s senior author Mark Ellenbogen…

“We believe this sensitivity develops during childhood and our suspicion is that if you could teach both parents and their offspring on how to cope with stress, how to deal with problems before they turn into larger significant stressors and difficulties, this would have a profound impact.”

Makes sense to me. So what can you do to keep your child’s (and your) stress – cortisol – levels under management? Here’s a short list…

  • Consider Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Maintain a healthy diet, to include sufficient protein intake
  • Minimize the ingestion of sugars
  • Minimize (avoid) caffeine intake
  • Consider anti-stress supplements (B vitamins, Vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, etc.)
  • Exercise
  • Get enough sleep
  • Grab a massage
  • Meditate
  • Laugh
  • Okay, for adults only – safe and responsible sexual intercourse is really helpful

That’s All Folks!

So often research is an accumulation of very complicated words and concepts. Sure it’s necessary, but it’s refreshing to come by research that’s simple – much less with implied prevention strategies. And that’s what we have here.

I don’t think anyone has a problem accepting the dynamics of predisposition as they apply to the emotional and mental health disorders.

And we’ve learned that difficulty with stress management and cortisol levels – when a parent has been diagnosed bipolar – is a predisposition that may lead to a bipolar disorder diagnosis.

But, remember, a predisposition doesn’t guarantee a diagnosis. And the key is intervention based in education, insight, and environmental adjustments. Bam!

The research we chatted about was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Fonds du Québec en Recherche sur la Société de la Culture. The details were published in Psychological Medicine.