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. We feel calm and content.
But then it all changes.
We start unraveling a bit. We get a little 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. That day is the worst.
We’re hungover and cranky – ready to explode on a moment’s notice. Sometimes, we even notice that we’re moodier in our day-to-day lives.
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 negatively 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. This causes that initial “ahhhhhh” feeling you get when you start drinking. You can feel yourself relax and mellow out.
But that’s only temporary.
You know that saying, “What goes up must come down”? Drinking alcohol is like that.
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.
Yes, that initial dopamine and serotonin spike is nice, but your brain is going to self-correct strongly in the opposite direction. Why?
The brain likes balance.
Eventually, that lack of chemical balance shifts to confusion, aggression, sadness, and mood swings.
But that’s not all.
Alcohol can also affect the levels of other neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate, which are involved in regulating mood and emotions, which 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.
The Effect of Alcohol on Our Brain Chemistry
Let’s explore how all of this works.
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. (Remember those initial warm, fuzzy feelings we talked about?)
As you drink more, the GABA pathways become overstimulated, taking you from happy-go-lucky to moody and intoxicated.
We already briefly touched on the fact that alcohol triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical
Alcohol also triggers the release of dopamine, which is a feel-good chemical directly involved with the brain’s reward pathway.
But here’s what it also does – triggers memory circuits, so you remember that feeling and associate it with alcohol. Now you’ve formed a neural connection that is hard to break.
Drink alcohol > Feel good > Seek more alcohol.
When you crave a drink, that’s that reward system ratcheting up. Your brain is saying, “hey, I want to feel good! Give me that alcohol!”
And when you don’t?
Well. It doesn’t like that very much. And that can also make you moody.
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.
This is one reason mood swings worsen when you don’t drink. Your brain becomes dependent on alcohol for certain functions, like releasing dopamine.
So when that meed goes unmet, behavior, mood, and emotional stability all tank.
Alcoholic Mood Swings in Heavy Drinkers
Alcohol doesn’t just make you moodier immediately after drinking. It can actually transform you into an irascible, moody person, even when you don’t drink.
Long-term alcohol abuse can change your personality by altering your brain structure. It does this in three significant ways:
- 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.
More on this phenomenon in a minute.
But I’d be remiss if we didn’t stop to consider for a moment why we put ourselves through any of this.
Why do we keep drinking if it makes us moody?
As we’ve already discussed, alcohol use triggers chemicals in the brain that make you feel good. At our core, we are creatures that just want to feel good!
We’re wired for it.
There’s a biological advantage to this process when it occurs naturally, but with alcohol, things go a bit sideways.
That’s because alcohol hijacks our reward system in profound ways that lead us to, among other things, repeat behaviors that are actually bad for us.
Dopamine exists 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.
Things that used to make you light up and feel happy start to pale in comparison to the boost you get from alcohol. That’s why life starts feeling a bit dull in the absence of alcohol. How can an ice cream sundae compare to that margarita?
Over time, you may find you can’t get any of those good feelings without drinking alcohol. And you need more of it to trigger the same response.
It’s the worse tradeoff in the world, honestly.
You drink to feel happy, but the cost is feeling increasingly more miserable when you don’t drink. And on top of that, you have to consume more alcohol to even get that baseline happy feeling you’re chasing.
This is the start of a very bad cycle, my friend.
And it causes major problems!
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. (Say that three times fast!)
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.
And again, I want to emphasize just how little alcohol you have to consume to experience this effect. Even if you just have three glasses of wine on Friday nights, every week, you are at risk for experiencing this effect.
But there’s the rub, right?
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.
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.
The cause and the “cure” become one and the same.
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 a night out drinking” blues, also known as hangxiety, is something many people experience.
I sound like a broken record at this point, but alcohol affects the level of chemicals in the brain that make you feel good. That is why you get buzzed and drunk. (We know this now, right?)
But also recall that the brain dislikes imbalance in either direction.
So when you’re flooding the zone with something like alcohol, your brain goes into shutdown mode.
It reacts by overcompensating for the inflated dopamine levels in your system, in the opposite direction. It’ll shut down dopamine receptor sites and stop producing as much dopamine naturally. In response to the flood of GABA, it will produce more glutamate (more on that in a minute).
And that all makes you feel depressed, anxious, and like staying in bed all day.
Alcohol, GABA, and Glutamate
Let’s explore that whole chemical process in more detail.
Alcohol enhances the activity of GABA receptors, which gives us that 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 natural levels and an increase in anxiety.
When people do not have enough GABA, they struggle with emotional regulation, and this can lead to a whole host of 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 left in an overactive state which can make us feel very anxious and jittery. Why? Because of all that increase in glutamate activity to compensate for five rounds of GABA-inducing alcohol consumption the night before.
The more you drink, the more you get swept up into this awful cycle.
For me, this felt like eternally living in a state of needing a drink to manage stress and a myriad of other uncomfortable feelings and then battling the terrible feelings that the absence of alcohol created in my brain.
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 also 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.
- Rapid heartbeat
Alcohol Mood Swings, Depression, and Anxiety
Alcohol is a depressant that affects the sensitive balance of chemicals in the brain. But we need these chemicals to remain in balance to maintain good mental health.
Serotonin is necessary to feel happy and calm. Dopamine provides a sense of satisfaction designed to motivate you. Both help us lead a happy, satisfactory life.
But alcohol depresses the natural production of these essential neurotransmitters after awhile.
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.
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.
Why You Should Take Alcohol Mood Swings Seriously
Sadly, heavy drinking is normalized in many cultures. 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.
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.
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!
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.