Skip to main content

Caffeine and Bipolar research

I conducted research exploring both caffeine intake and activity levels of individuals with bipolar, and how this was potentially associated with symptoms of mania and depression. I also looked at how caffeine intake and activity may be influenced by one another. For those who do not know, Bipolar is a mental health condition where the individual experiences extreme mood swings from very low mood (depression) to very high mood (mania), combined with periods of ‘normal’ mood.

What did the study involve?

I conducted interviews over the telephone with 20 individuals with bipolar, where I asked questions about their experiences of bipolar in relation to their caffeine intake and physical activity and or exercise behaviours.

What did I find?

The individuals I spoke to described how caffeine required a delicate ‘balancing act’. They described how having caffeine wasn’t always helpful or harmful, but that the effects of caffeine varied according to their mood state. These individuals also described how having caffeine influenced their mood state. In relation to higher mood, they described how having caffeine could be unhelpful as it ‘increased manic-ness’, making their high mood worse, whilst in relation to lower mood, individuals described how consuming caffeine could be helpful describing it as a ‘little helper’. However, in relation to very low mood caffeine was not beneficial and did not have beneficial effects (‘nothing works’). Furthermore, nearly all the individuals I spoke to described that they had a strategic routine in relation to their caffeine use. This was a routine that was proactive, involving deliberate actions such as consuming more caffeine when they were feeling lower or reducing their caffeine when they were feeling higher to help manage mood and bipolar symptoms.

Individuals we spoke to described how the physical activity they did changed according to their mood state. However, in comparison to caffeine, physical activity was described as being positive and ‘beneficial’ by everyone. The individuals I spoke to described using physical activity as a tool to regulate their mood and manage their bipolar symptoms. They described how in lower mood states they could bring their mood up by doing more physical activity and how they could bring their mood down in higher mood states by doing less physical activity. They described how both their motivation and energy levels were important in whether they engaged in physical activity, and how low energy and motivation stopped them engaging in physical activity when they were in a lower mood even though they knew it would help them to feel better. This was also the reason they could also end up doing too much physical activity when their mood was higher.

Then individuals I spoke to also described relationships between the caffeine they had and they physical activity they did. They described helpful relationships between these two behaviours, how caffeine motivated them to do physical activity, and how physical activity was helpful to ‘burn off’ the caffeine that they had. They also described a potential unhelpful relationship whereby having caffeine and doing physical activity close together could be dangerous, making them feel higher and more manic. Alternatively, individuals we spoke to also described caffeine and physical activity to be two separate routines they just had.
Finally, the individuals we spoke to had mixed views on caffeine (positive and negative) and very positive views on physical activity. These beliefs are likely to influence whether these individuals decide to have caffeine or do physical activity. Nealy all participants we spoke to said they had received positive advice on physical activity but had not received any formal advice about caffeine consumption from clinical professionals in relation to bipolar.

What does this mean?

This research has important findings for both individuals with bipolar and healthcare professionals. It would seem important that healthcare professionals speak to their patients about their caffeine use and physical activity behaviours that they engage in, encouraging their patients to reflect on how these may change according to their mood and to consider if or when they may be helpful or harmful. It also suggests the need for caffeine to be incorporated as part of routine assessments, alongside other lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, alcohol and physical activity which are already routinely assessed. Furthermore, these findings suggest that individuals with bipolar should take time to reflect on the caffeine they have and the physical activity they do and how both of these behaviours influence their mood. The individual could then work to make changes to that will assist them to better manage symptoms of the condition, ideally being supported in this by healthcare professionals.