According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as many as 5.7 million Americans over the age of 18 are currently struggling with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a psychological condition in which the body experiences wide swings of emotions from mania to depression. Historically, lithium has been the main mood-stabilizing medication used to treat the disorder.
Mood stabilizers work by acting on chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. The main neurotransmitters of concern with bipolar disorder are serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Each of these neurotransmitters has the unique ability to excite or depress mood, depending on how many are present between nerve cells in the brain.
The body needs balanced levels of neurotransmitters in the brain for mood to be stabilized. Certain factors, such as stress or disease, can cause patients' neurotransmitter levels to become too high, or too low. Mood stabilizers work by manually interfering with specific receptors for some neurotransmitters, while promoting the increase in levels of others. For example, lithium works by blocking dopamine receptors while increasing the levels of serotonin being produced. This helps control episodes of mania, while also helping to prevent episodes of depression.
Different mood stabilizers react in different ways, depending on body chemistry and health levels of the patient being treated. As such, mood stabilizers have expanded to include anticonvulsant medications and antipsychotic medications that also have measurable effects on balancing the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. For example, some patients may have a severe allergic reaction to lithium, but may still need treatment. In that case, an anticonvulsant such as Topamax, or a antipsychotic medication such as Clorazil, may be used to produce the same balancing effects of lithium, without the allergic reaction.