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Alcohol and Mood Swings: Understanding The Connection

Alcohol is supposed to make us feel good, right? That’s why so many people drink. We sit down after a long day, crack open a beer or a bottle of wine, and after a few sips that euphoric wave washes over us, and we feel calm and content.

But then it all changes.

We become loose and start behaving in ways we normally wouldn’t. Some people even get aggressive, ready for a fight.

And then there’s the next day when we’re hungover and cranky – ready to explode on a moment’s notice. We might even become moodier in between drinks.

What’s gives? If alcohol is supposed to make us feel happy and relaxed, why does it lead to mood swings, anxiety, and restlessness?

There are a few things at play that lead to alcohol and mood swings. Let’s unpack them!

Why does alcohol cause mood swings?

Alcohol can cause mood swings because it affects several neurochemical pathways in the brain that regulate mood and emotions.

At first, alcohol can increase the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, causing feelings of euphoria and freedom.

But that’s only temporary.

With continued and excessive alcohol consumption, the brain’s ability to produce and regulate these neurotransmitters can be disrupted, leading to a decrease in their levels and a shift in mood.

Eventually, that lack of chemical balance shifts to confusion, aggression, sadness, and mood swings.

Moreover, alcohol can also affect the levels of other neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate, which are involved in regulating mood and emotions. Changes in the levels of these neurotransmitters can lead to the development of mood swings and other mood disorders.

So there are both immediate effects of alcohol on mood and longer-term effects to be mindful of.

A multi-colored layered image of a man who is cycling through various alcohol-induced mood swings
Alcohol & Mood Swings

The Effect of Alcohol on Our Brain Chemistry

After being processed through the liver, alcohol molecules bind to GABA receptors in the brain, activating them.

GABA is the neurotransmitter that gives you pleasure and feelings of euphoria, so activating the receptors makes you feel good. As you drink more, the GABA pathways become overstimulated, making you moody and intoxicated.

Alcohol also triggers the release of dopamine, which is a feel-good chemical.

This helps to produce that buzzed feeling people love to brag about. Dopamine triggers memory circuits, so you remember that feeling and associate it with alcohol. That is what you crave when you think about drinking

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain:

Long-term drinking alters brain chemistry and the size of the neurons that make up the organ’s structure. Eventually, it can cause gaps in your memory as it disrupts the transfer of them for short to long-term storage.

This is why some people have blackouts.

Over time, progressive brain structure changes make it challenging to go without alcohol. That begins the cycle of dependence seen in alcohol use disorder.

This is one reason mood swings worsen when you don’t drink. Your brain becomes dependent on alcohol for certain functions, like releasing dopamine.

If you’re interested in learning if you’re at risk for alcohol dependence, I’ve included a quiz at the end of this article.

A split, rainbow colored image of a brain
alcohol, mood swings, and the brain

Alcoholic Mood Swings in Heavy Drinkers

Long-term alcohol abuse can change your personality because it alters your brain structure. It does this in three significant ways by:

  • Causing atrophy or brain shrinkage of brain regions
  • Reducing white matter
  • Disrupting neural pathways

The results of which lead to impaired cognitive function, mood disorders, and other mental health issues.

Why do we keep drinking if it makes us moody?

Alcohol use triggers chemicals in the brain that make you feel good. There’s a biological advantage to this process when it occurs naturally, but with alcohol, things go a bit sideways.

Those chemicals exist to reward you for doing things that are good for you, like exercise. The release of these chemicals makes you want to exercise more to get that same feeling.

Alcohol gives you that same reward but without making you work for it. In the process, it desensitizes you to that “feel good” reward.

Over time, you can’t get that feeling without drinking alcohol. And you need more of it to trigger the same response. 

There are physical side effects of alcohol use that also contribute to mood swings. For example, people get testy when craving a drink and can’t get one. They may feel physically ill and angry at themselves and their addiction. 

The response to drinking can make you feel misunderstood, too.

Alcohol abuse contributes to 232 million sick days at work, for instance. It wreaks havoc on personal relationships, too. A 2013 study found that 50 percent of marriages where one spouse drinks and the other doesn’t end in divorce. 

Alcohol Use Makes You More Stressed, Even When Not Drinking

Another way that alcohol can contribute to mood swings is related to its effect on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis.

The HPA Axis maintains your physiological balance between what you perceive as stressful and what you don’t perceive as stressful. People who drink regularly (even 1-2 drinks per night or just on Fridays, etc.) experience changes in their HPA Axis that result in more cortisol (stress hormone) being released at baseline.

This translates to increased stress and anxiety levels when you’re not drinking.

But what do so many of us do when we’ve had a stressful experience or day? We drink to take the edge off. And it does work temporarily. That initial euphoria helps us relax and set aside our worries temporarily.

But in the long term, we’re actually increasing our stress levels. Over time, you’ll notice that your fuse gets shorter, and you become more aggravated by everyday annoyances.

This is where we start to enter a dangerous cycle of self-medicating stress with alcohol which, in turn, disrupts the delicate balance of hormones in our system, causing us to feel more stressed even when we don’t drink.

For a comprehensive breakdown of this process, I highly recommend this video from Andrew Huberman.

Anxiety and Mood Swings The Day After Drinking

That “after the night out drinking” blues, also known as hangxiety, is something many people experience. As previously mentioned, alcohol affects the level of chemicals in the brain that make you feel good. That is why you get buzzed and drunk. 

The alcohol attaches to GABA receptors and creates that same feeling of euphoria. It also triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin, making you feel good.

When you have alcohol mood swings the next day, your brain reacts to the deficiency by overcompensating for the inflated dopamine levels in your system, and you get depressed and anxious.

Alcohol, GABA, and Glutamate

Alcohol enhances the activity of GABA receptors, leading to an initial feeling of relaxation and decreased anxiety.

However, with continued and excessive alcohol consumption, the brain’s ability to produce and regulate GABA can be disrupted, leading to a decrease in its levels and an increase in anxiety.

When people do not have enough GABA, they struggle with emotional regulation, and this can lead to increased mental health issues, stress, and even paranoia.

Conversely, alcohol initially depresses glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons in the brain. This activity helps us feel alert, but it also makes us feel anxious in excess.

When we have enhanced GABA activity, the brain will try to increase glutamate activity to restore balance. Once the alcohol leaves our system, our brain is in an overactive state which can make us feel very anxious and jittery.

Additional Factors for Mood Swings The Day After Drinking:

In addition to your brain trying to restore balance after a night of drinking, you might experience anxiety and moodiness as a result of hangover and withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol causes dehydration which can lead to irritability, mood swings, fatigue, headaches, and feeling pretty lousy.

It also disrupts your sleep. Despite “passing out” for several hours, it’s not the same restorative sleep you would typically get. This further contributes to feelings of irritability and moodiness.

Lastly, after a night of heavy drinking, you’re likely to experience mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, which can also contribute to moodiness. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Shakiness
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Nausea

Alcohol Mood Swings, Depression, and Anxiety

Alcohol is a depressant that affects the sensitive balance of chemicals in the brain. Many of these chemicals are needed to maintain good mental health, such as dopamine and serotonin. 

Serotonin is necessary to feel happy and calm. Dopamine provides a sense of satisfaction designed to motivate you. Alcohol depresses the natural production of these essential neurotransmitters, which can lead to depression, mood swings, and anxiety.

Why? Because the brain likes balance. If it is flooded with an artificial boost of happy chemicals, it will stop or decrease its own production of them to bring the internal environment back into homeostasis.

It’s why so many people struggle with depression and anxiety when they quit drinking. It takes a while for the brain to adjust.

A woman sits with her head in her hands looking distraught
alcohol and mood disorders

Does Alcohol Cause Mood Disorders?

A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that alcohol abuse and heavy drinking can “cause signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and antisocial behavior, both during intoxication and during withdrawal. At times, these symptoms and signs cluster, last for weeks, and mimic frank psychiatric disorders.”

The good news, according to this study, is that many of these alcohol-induced symptoms and conditions disappear after several days and weeks of abstinence from alcohol.

It’s complicated, however, because many people who abuse alcohol do so because they are attempting to self-medicate a pre-existing mood disorder or mental health condition.

So the options are as follows:

  • Alcohol can affect people in ways that mimic mood disorders.
  • Alcohol can exacerbate existing mood disorders.
  • Long-term alcohol abuse can change the brain in ways that lead to mood disorders.

This is why it’s so critical for people to get treatment for both alcohol dependence and mood disorders to have the greatest chance at recovery.

There is also a physical and emotional impact of drinking that can affect your mood.

Long-term alcohol abuse can damage the liver and digestive tract, so you may not feel well whether you drink or not. How we feel physically affects our mental health.

Why You Should Take Alcohol Mood Swings Seriously

Drinking alcohol and even getting drunk are normalized in many cutlures. Because of that, we tend to brush off some of the physical and emotional consequences attached to drinking. It’s just par for the course, right?

Throwing up, feeling cranky, or becoming an angry maniac because of alcohol are often forgiven or thought of as “no big deal” because it’s the price of admission. We roll that dice because drinking is supposed to be fun, even if it makes you act completely out of character.

But in reality, alcohol-induced mood swings can be a warning sign that your alcohol consumption is disrupting the delicate hormonal and neurochemical balance in your body, which can contribute to and exacerbate underlying mental health conditions.

It can also be a sign that your alcohol consumption is veering into the territory of alcohol dependence.

In either case, it’s not something to take lightly. If you’re unsure if your alcohol consumption is high-risk, I’ve included a quiz that can help you glean more insights.

It’s also worth expressing your concerns about your alcohol consumption and mental health with a therapist or medical professional. They can provide you with clearer guidance on what to do.

They may advise you to reduce your drinking or quit temporarily to see if your symptoms resolve. Or, depending on your consumption levels, may recommend quitting alcohol completely. I know the latter prospect is scary and unattractive to many people, but if you want to understand more about that process, I’ll include some resources at the end of this article as well.

Additional Resources:

If you’ve tried quitting on your own and haven’t found success and are interested in an alternative program to the traditional in-person groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery (which are both great options), you may be interested in Annie Grace’s program offerings.

She is the author of the popular books “This Naked Mind” and “The Alcohol Experiment.” I highly recommend checking out her programs (for which I am an affiliate).

Additionally, if you’re struggling with unstable moods or other mental health issues and find yourself drinking more to escape it all, I recommend speaking with a mental health counselor or therapist.

This is the kind of thing you want to “catch” early before you wind up physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. If you’re questioning your alcohol consumption, don’t brush off your concerns.

If in-person appointments are difficult for you to manage and you don’t have good telehealth options with local therapists in your area, you might consider BetterHelp.

I did counseling with BetterHelp when I first moved back to the US from overseas and had a really positive experience with it. If you sign up with my link, you can receive 10% off your first month.

Plus, if you aren’t happy with your therapist, they make switching easy – something I was unable to do without a lot of time and research with in-person therapists.

Check them out and see what you think!

Visit: https://www.betterhelp.com/soberish.

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AUDIT Quiz: (Alcohol Use Dependence Identification Test):

Please note that this is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for a medical diagnosis from a trained professional.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

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