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Causes of Bipolar Disorder: Heredity, Brain Chemistry and Environmental Factors

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  • It’s believed that genetics, neurochemical composition and environmental factors play a major role in bipolar disorder onset and progression
  • Knowing the factors that could trigger bipolar disorder is extremely important, especially if you’re at a higher risk for this condition

Despite continuous efforts to further understand the etiology of bipolar disorder, researchers still do not know what causes this mental health problem. However, it’s believed that genetics, neurochemical composition and environmental factors play a major role in its onset and progression.

The Role of Genetics in the Development of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is considered one of the most highly heritable medical conditions, as numerous scientific evidence and genetic methods have shown that this illness tends to run in families. In fact, more than two-thirds of sufferers have a close relative who’s also diagnosed with bipolar disorder or unipolar major depression.1

According to a study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, individuals with a first degree relative who has bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to develop this mental condition. The genetic risk for bipolar disorder becomes even higher in families with earlier onset. Twin studies have also provided significant evidence to confirm that genetics strongly influence the occurrence of this mental health problem.2

Another study also shows that around 51 percent of children with a bipolar parent may develop other types of psychiatric disorders, including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dysthymia.3 However, it’s important to note that bipolar disorder is a multifactorial condition, which means that it occurs due to a combination of risk factors. Having the genetic predisposition for it does not necessarily mean that you’re bound to develop this mental disorder.4,5

Certain Neurochemical Compositions May Cause Bipolar Disorder

Researchers have identified three chemicals that may play a role in the development of bipolar disorder: serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. These chemicals are also called neurotransmitters since they’re responsible for sending signals between neurons, significantly affecting the brain function.6

To give you a background, serotonin is the brain chemical associated with certain body functions, such as sleeping, eating and learning.7 Noradrenaline, on the other hand, is referred to as the “fight or flight” chemical, as it’s responsible for the body’s reaction to stress.8 Meanwhile, dopamine is the chemical responsible for regulating pleasure and emotional reward.9

These three brain chemicals have been linked to different mental health problems, and research shows that they may also play a key role in the onset and effects of bipolar disorder. For instance, high noradrenaline levels may cause mania, while low levels of it may lead to depression.10 Manic and depressive episodes are also linked to low levels of serotonin and abnormal dopamine signaling.11

How Do Social and Environmental Factors Affect Bipolar Disorder?

While having imbalanced neurotransmitters or a genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder makes you more susceptible to this condition, it still takes certain triggers for manic or depressive episodes to occur. Some of the social and environmental factors that may trigger bipolar disorder symptoms include:12,13,14

Physical, sexual or emotional abuse

Stress due to everyday problems

Substance abuse

Hormonal imbalance

Loss of a loved one

Failed relationship

Physical illness

Sleeping disturbances

Knowing the factors that could trigger bipolar disorder is extremely important, especially if you’re at a higher risk for this condition. Avoiding the environmental and social triggers mentioned above may help prevent, or at least control, the symptoms of bipolar disorder.


Bipolar Disorder: An Introduction

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder in Children

Bipolar Disorder Symptoms

Bipolar Disorder Causes

Bipolar Disorder Types

Bipolar Disorder Test

Bipolar Disorder Treatment

Bipolar Disorder Prevention

Living with Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder Diet

Bipolar Disorder FAQ

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