Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/21/2021
If you love linguistics, you may already know that some words or terms can have several meanings.
And it can sometimes be similar with medication: One drug might be able to treat several types of symptoms, diseases or disorders.
And so it is with mood stabilizers. They’re often prescribed to treat bipolar disorder yet more specifically, can also help manage manic or depressive symptoms.
Read on to learn more about mood stabilizers for depression.
As mentioned above, mood stabilizers are often used to treat bipolar disorder.
There are three types of bipolar disorders: Bipolar I, which consists of episodes of depression and mania.
The manic episodes last at least seven days and can be so severe, they sometimes necessitate hospital care.
Depressive episodes occurring with Bipolar I disorder will typically last at least two weeks.
Bipolar II also involves episodes of depression along with hypomania, yet the latter are less intense than the manic symptoms associated with Bipolar I.
Finally, there is Cyclothymia, which involves periods of hypomania followed by depressive symptoms that can last for more than two years.
However, neither the depressive symptoms nor hypomanic symptoms occur in such a way to be diagnosed as ‘episodes.’
Depending on an individual’s specific manic and depressive traits, particular mood stabilizers can be used to treat the disorder, or they may be combined with other medications to treat the specific symptoms.
Just like other types of medications, there are multiple brands and options when it comes to mood stabilizers.
Lithium is arguably one of the most popular mood stabilizer medications, and it’s been around for over 45 years.
Other mood stabilizers can include anticonvulsant (anti-seizure) medications.
We’ll take a look at these four as you may hear about them when exploring mood stabilizers for depression: lithium, valproic acid, carbamazepine and lamotrigine.
As mentioned above, lithium is one of the most popular mood stabilizing drugs. It is thought to help decrease neural excitation, which may explain its stabilizing nature.
Psychiatrists work to find “therapeutic” lithium levels for patients to treat bipolar.
This is usually used as an anticonvulsant drug — aka: antiseizure medication. Yet, it also works as a mood stabilizer by limiting neural firing and excitation.
Carbamazepine works similarly to the others listed above but is also thought to block certain functions in the brain that might contribute to more manic energy.
This is another anticonvulsant — yet it works slightly differently in that it boosts Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA has been found to have anti-anxiety effects.
While mood stabilizers can be effective, they do sometimes cause side effects.
The side effects will vary based on the medication and your individual makeup, and can be both physical and mental in nature.
In some cases, depending on the adverse effects you experience, you might switch to a different medication.
Because lithium gets excreted through the kidneys (our body’s filters), one of the most common side effects involves bladder function.
Lithium can cause a disease (nephrogenic diabetes insipidus) which leads to urgency to urinate as well as extreme thirst.
Other side effects include tremors, weight gain and changes in thyroid function.
More severe side effects (that also can relate to the dosage and having too much lithium) can include issues like a slow heart rate, memory problems, confusion, diarrhea, elevated white blood cell count, acne and rashes.
Valproic acid may cause a variety of side effects including weight gain, nausea, vomiting, alopecia, tremors and bruising.
More severe side effects include transaminitis (a disease where too many enzymes in the liver start to enter the bloodstream), acute pancreatitis and liver damage.
Carbamazepine can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abnormally low sodium levels in the body. It also might cause headaches, dizziness, blurry vision, lack of energy and drowsiness.
Common adverse effects of lamotrigine include nausea and rashes — and at times, severe rashes.
Rashes typically show up within two to eight weeks of starting lamotrigine.
Although mood stabilizers are mostly used to treat bipolar disorder, they are sometimes prescribed to aid with other mental disorders.
Mood stabilizers are typically used for depression when it’s become resistant or non-responsive to other forms of treatment like online therapy or antidepressant medication.
In the past, lithium has been used in addition to antidepressants. That said, it is only used for specific cases.
If you are considering lithium, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider as they can help you determine whether it’s the right choice for you.
As mentioned above, mood stabilizers are predominantly recommended for bipolar disorder but can be used to treat depression.
More severe cases of depression might warrant other medications like antipsychotics or additional treatment methods.
Research on mood stabilizers and depression is limited, aside from its use as treatment for resistant types of depression.
There are many other treatment options for depression.
The most common first line of treatment for depression includes therapy and antidepressants.
Antidepressants are medications that help treat symptoms of depression.
For depressed patients — especially those diagnosed with major depression — antidepressants can be an effective treatment.
Common types of antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and bupropion.
The other common treatment for depression is therapy.
Therapy can be employed in addition to other forms of treatment or used instead of medication for mild to moderate cases of depression.
The type of talk therapy you engage in will likely depend on what you are looking for and what treatment a therapist thinks is best for you.
Research shows that adding an antipsychotic in addition to antidepressants may be effective for those with treatment-resistant depression.
However, researchers have also indicated that the evidence is limited, and the improvements were not vast.
That said, antipsychotic medication is still considered a second-line treatment option for those resistant to therapy and antidepressants.
Chances are if you are looking into mood stabilizers, most of the information you find will relate to a form of bipolar disorder.
Yet if you are experiencing depressive symptoms, it’s wise to ask for help, and fantastic you’re searching in the first place.
Mental illness can feel stigmatizing — however, it is incredibly common and help is available.
Consulting with a healthcare professional is your best bet for launching your journey to recovery. Your provider might suggest therapy, an antidepressant or perhaps a mood stabilizer for depression.
For more information on depression and mental health, check out these resources to help get you started.