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What are the Scientific Causes of Mood Swings?

Unlike emotions, moods are emotional states and are usually described as being either positive or negative, good or bad. With mood swings, however, a good mood can turn sour in a snap. There are a variety of different factors that come together to influence our moods, including stress, hormonal fluctuations, food intake, and the weather. Combined, and there is a perfect storm, an apt description of moods that yo-yo back and forth seemingly uncontrollably.

Mood swings can be genetic but are most often the result of hormonal upheavals and chemical imbalances, the sort of thing that sends the feel-good chemicals to seemingly negative numbers while allowing stress hormones to get out of control. In reality, mood swings have many origins, and while unfortunate circumstances such as illness or death may sometimes play a role, there are usually scientific causes of mood swings that explain the shift. Essentially, it’s all about the complex chemistry of the brain.

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Scientific Causes of Mood Swings

From the predictable causes like stress to the uncontrollable fluctuation of your hormones, the science behind certain causes of mood swings can be very complex. However, with these causes, there are also easy fixes that can be implemented into your daily life without much change at all. Listed below are some of the causes of mood swings and some ways to try and control them.

Stress Erases Feelings of Bliss

While a small burst of stress can help push us through a deadline at work or propel us past the finish line during a sporting event, too much of it can cause a host of health issues, including mood swings.

Stress plays such an important role in your mood because chronic stress alters the chemistry of the brain, depleting levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitters GABA and serotonin as well as the excitatory neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine.

Dr. Esther Sternberg, chief of neuroendocrine immunology and behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health, compared stress to email and spam. “A little stress is good but too much is bad; you'll need to shut down and reboot,” Sternberg told WebMD. 1 GABA and serotonin are responsible for keeping dopamine and acetylcholine in check, and when levels of these two neurotransmitters are low, symptoms including anxiety, insomnia, low mood, memory problems, and certain health issues including inflammation can take hold. Anxiety and depression deplete levels of these neurotransmitters that soothe the nervous system even further. 2

Dopamine and acetylcholine also play a role in mood, and when levels are even, moods are regulated. Low levels of these neurotransmitters can also lead to mood swings.


Hormones and Mood

Stress causes the release of cortisol, a hormone we’ve put to good use since our Paleolithic days. Cortisol triggers the release of blood glucose, giving us a burst of energy that lasts until the stressor dissipates.

Unfortunately for modern men and women, stress rarely involves the kind of dangers facing our caveman cousins, and the blood sugar released for energy we needed then tends to linger in the bloodstream now, keeping stress symptoms alive and waiting around to cause a wealth of serious health problems. Most importantly, cortisol causes levels of serotonin and dopamine to drop, leading to mood swings, chronic anxiety, and depression. While most research looks at the role hormones play in the mood swings of women – menopause, premenstrual syndrome, etc. – both women and men are emotionally driven by hormone levels, especially the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine.

Cortisol plays a major role in mood swings because when levels of the hormone are chronically high, the chemistry of the brain is altered, opening the door to symptoms of depression, which comes with its own issues. 3 A low mood makes self-care a low priority, making it more difficult to participate in activities that can help regulate neurotransmitters and restore feelings of well-being.

For women, estrogen levels also impact mood. Levels of the hormones fluctuate from puberty into adulthood, then drop significantly during menopause. Estrogen is closely connected to the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, and when levels of estrogen are low, levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters also drop. However, men are not immune to hormonally-induced mood swings. Low levels of testosterone can also cause a drop in dopamine, GABA and serotonin, leading to insomnia, depression, irritability and other mood-related issues.

Symptoms of low testosterone, including erectile dysfunction, loss of muscle and bone mass and a lower libido can increase feelings of depression. If health issues including obesity, type 2 diabetes and self-medicating are present, they can also negatively influence hormone levels, making mood swings more likely.

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Diet and Mood

Miriam-Webster added the word “hangry” to the dictionary in September of 2018 because the word – which means irritability caused by a lack of food intake – has become a familiar part of American lexicon. Beyond hunger, foods can have a positive or negative impact on mood, depending on the kinds of foods you’re eating.

A diet high in refined sugar or unhealthy carbs (white bread, traditional pasta, and chips, for example, which turn to sugar when digested) can lead to elevated blood sugar levels. High blood glucose disrupts the function of mood-regulating neurotransmitters and triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which leads to symptoms that mimic anxiety. 4

When sugar levels spike, they are often followed by an equally jarring fall, which also negatively impacts mood. It becomes a vicious cycle, because low blood sugar causes cravings for more sugary foods, keeping moods swinging like a pendulum. 5 In the long term, a poor diet can cause inflammation that leads to neurological damage – and low or fluctuating neurotransmitter levels.

According to, dietary changes such as trading carbs and sugars with vitamin-rich options such as veggies and lean protein can switch up the structure of the brain, encouraging the production of the neurotransmitters linked to mood while keeping hormones associated with anxiety symptoms such as cortisol in check.

The amino acid tryptophan – long thought to be the compound in turkey that puts Thanksgiving dinner guests into a stupor – is especially important, because when paired with B vitamins (Ieafy greens, whole grains, beans, mushrooms, and nuts) it encourages the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, an important mood regulator. 6

Genetics and Mood Swings

Mood swings, especially those associated with bipolar disorder, could be genetic, according to an article appearing in Psychology Today. Those suffering from the disorder – which leads to manic highs and dark lows – could have different neurology than those without the disorder, suggesting that neurotransmitters may not communicate with one another in the same way that neurotransmitters of those without bipolar disorder do.

One 2014 study suggested that the amygdala – the region of the brain that controls emotions – may not be as developed as it should be, making it difficult for neurotransmitters to keep moods regulated. 7


The Weather and Mood Swings

If you’ve ever looked outside your window on a rainy day, only to find it impossible to drag yourself out of bed and face the day, you know that even weather can get a person down. According to psychologist David Watson, co-director of the Centre for Advanced Measurement of Personality and Psychopathology at the University of Notre Dame, gray days – or days spent indoors without exposure to natural light – can play a really big role in mood.

Exercise Can Boost Neurotransmitters

Anyone who has ever experienced a runner’s high understands the power of endorphins, another neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. According to 1999 research from Duke University, just 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week, is enough to encourage the production of endorphins, helping to regulate mood.

Exercise positively alters brain chemistry, the key reason why people experience depression, according to William Walsh, Ph.D., president of the non-profit Research Institute in Illinois. For people who experience depression or mood swings, “the dominant problem is chemistry,” Walsh says. 8 Exercise also boosts levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, other neurotransmitters that regulate mood.

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