Mood swings: triggers, causes and management

Plus, six essential mood-boosting nutrients to add to your diet.

mood swings
Bundit Binsuk / EyeEm

Whether it’s the joy of bumping into an old friend in the street or the annoyance of getting soaked in an unexpected downpour, minor daily mood swings are part of life. But if you’re experiencing significant emotional changes – for example, extremely happy one moment and severely depressed the next – your mood swings may be a sign of something more serious.

Here, Fatmata Kamara, specialist mental health adviser for Bupa UK, discusses related conditions, triggers, and lifestyle changes to tackle mood swings, while Aliza Marogy, nutritionist and founder of clinical supplement company Inessa, shares six essential mood-boosting nutrients:

Common triggers of mood swings:

If you’re experiencing extreme mood swings – whether due to a medical condition or something else – you may find certain things may trigger or exacerbate them.

You could try keeping a diary to note down any changes in mood and what you were doing before it happened. This will help you and your doctor identify any changes that may help alleviate your mood swings.


‘The amount of sleep you get and its quality can affect your mood if you struggle sleeping, find that you’re waking up frequently in the night or not getting enough sleep,’ says Kamara. ‘This can cause mood swings and irritability the following day.’


‘If you’ve been prescribed medication and have felt changes in your mood, make sure to check the information on the medication leaflet to see if mood swings are listed as a potential side effect or ask your GP or pharmacist,’ says Kamara.


‘Hormones play a big part in mood swings because they affect the chemistry in your brain,’ says Kamara. ‘As such, things like PMS (premenstrual syndrome), pregnancy and menopause can all affect your mood. Men can also experience mood swings as a result of hormones, although this is less likely to occur than it is in women.’

Diet and hydration

‘If your blood sugar drops, you might feel tired and irritated,’ says Kamara. ‘Caffeine is a major culprit in mood swings because it is a stimulant, which means it will give you a quick burst of energy but can make you feel low or anxious later on. It can also affect your sleep.’

Substance use

‘Mood swings can be an effect of substance abuse or addiction when you’re under the influence, or as a result of withdrawal syndrome,’ says Kamara. ‘Misuse, dependence and addiction to drugs or alcohol can cause physical and mental illness and affect all areas of your life, so it’s important to seek out help.’

Health conditions related to mood swings

There are lots of mental health conditions that can affect your mood and cause mood swings. They’re often referred to as mood disorders, and include:

  • Bipolar disorder: If you have bipolar disorder, you may experience marked mood swings, each of which may last for several weeks or longer.
  • Personality disorders: For example, borderline personality disorder, which may cause rapid changes in mood in a relatively short period of time.
  • Schizophrenia: Mood disturbances often accompany acute schizophrenia, including depression, anxiety, irritability or euphoria.

    ‘If your feelings are interfering with your ability to cope on a day-to-day basis, seek help from your GP.’

    Hormonal changes may also affect your mood, because they often affect the chemistry in your brain. For women, mood swings may be linked to menstrual cycles, pregnancy and menopause.

    It’s not exclusively a female issue though, says Kamara. ‘A lack of testosterone can make a man's energy levels decrease, making some men increasingly irritable or anxious,’ she says.

    ‘If you’re finding your feelings are interfering with your ability to cope on a day-to-day basis, it’s worth seeking help from your GP as early as possible,’ says Kamara.

    When should you see your doctor about mood swings?

    It’s normal for your mood to fluctuate, but if your behaviour is unpredictable for a number of days or more – especially where it involves emotions that cause damage or harm to your life – it’s important to seek professional support. This may include:

    • Uncontrollable or risky behaviours, such as spending money excessively
    • Wanting to harm yourself or end your life
    • Feeling euphoric, high, or otherwise extremely excitable
    • Being unable to get go to work, see friends, or even get out of bed

      If you’re concerned about experiencing mood swings, your first port of call should be your GP. ‘If you feel like you're struggling with mood swings, speak to a doctor about what's on your mind,’ Kamara says. They will talk you through the treatment options available to you.

      If you’re currently in a crisis or feeling desperate, you can call the Samaritans on 116-123 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255. Both lines are available 24/7.

      How are mood swings treated?

      The treatment for mood symptoms will depend on the root cause. Self-help programmes, talking therapies or medications may be some of the options recommended to you. There also are also a number of lifestyle changes you can make that may help you manage your mood swings.

      Prioritise your health

      Exercising regularly has lots of benefits for your health – both physically and mentally, says Kamara. ‘When you exercise, feel-good hormones called endorphins are released, and these can boost your mood,’ she explains. ‘Exercise can also be a good distraction from everyday stresses.’

      Practice relaxation

      Calming practices like mindfulness and meditation can ease your body and mind, says Kamara. ‘If you’re worried or anxious about anything in particular, and it’s causing a change in your mood, try writing these stresses down,’ she says. ‘If you can recognise the source of your stress, you can make small changes to help you feel better.’

      Talk it out

      If you’re struggling with your mood swings, talking to someone you’re close with can help. ‘Go at your own pace and speak to people you trust, as this can help you open up about how you’re feeling,’ Kamara adds.

      6 mood-boosting nutrients

      Eating a healthy, balanced diet is another way of supporting your mind and body. Often when thinking of foods to lift our mood, our minds wander to comforting carb-rich or sugary treats, says Marogy.

      As well as making you feel sluggish, ‘these foods may also lead to fluctuating blood sugar levels, which can affect our mood and lead to irritability,’ she says. Here are six mood-boosting nutrients to include in your diet:

      mood swings
      Matt Porteous

      1. Magnesium

      Found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate, magnesium plays an important role in the body and is involved in over 300 different chemical reactions, including in the brain, says Marogy. It calms the nervous system, helping to combat symptoms like irritability and restlessness.

      ‘It’s not uncommon for modern day diets to lack magnesium, and studies indicate that a deficit of this important mineral can be a contributing factor in several mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression,’ she explains.

      ‘An additional bonus is that magnesium is known to improve sleep quality – something we know to be an essential factor in governing our mood –through the regulation of GABA levels, a neurotransmitter which promotes slumber.’

      2. B vitamins

      B vitamins can be found in a variety of foods including whole grains, meat, fish, dairy, eggs and dark green leafy vegetables. They work best in conjunction with one another, as each type appears to have a slightly different action on aspects contributing to mood regulation, says Marogy.

      ‘B vitamins give us a ‘lift’ via their role in the synthesis of serotonin, reducing feelings of anxiety and depression, improving sleep quality, and balancing blood sugar – which is important, as low levels cause the body to produce the stress hormone cortisol,’ she says.

      3. Folate

      It’s always been sound advice to eat your greens, because dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach, chard, kale, and spring cabbage contain high amounts of folate,’ says Marogy. ‘Although folate is classed as a B vitamin, it deserves its own mention as an essential nutrient for supporting mental health.’

      Studies show that people with depression tend to have lower dietary intake and blood levels of folate compared with those without the condition, she continues.. While the mechanism is not fully understood, it’s thought that folate deficiency may impair the metabolism of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline.

      4. Zinc

      Zinc is often lacking in processed foods and vegan diets, as major sources of this essential mineral are meat, fish and poultry. While present in plant foods, your body absorbs zinc from animal protein better.

      ‘Zinc is involved in modulating the brain and body’s response to stress and it has been found that zinc deficiency may lead to symptoms of depression and low mood,’ says Marogy.

      5. Iodine

      Fish, shellfish, and iodised salt contain iodine, a nutrient critical for the optimum functioning of the thyroid gland. The thyroid affects the body in many ways, including management of our energy levels, immune function, brain performance and mood, says Marogy. ‘Iodine is required for the production of thyroid hormones, and it is found that people with under functioning thyroid glands can often feel low.’

      6. Omega-3 fatty acids

      ‘Omega-3 fatty acids are known as ‘essential fats’ because our bodies can’t make them, and so they must be included in our diet, the richest source being found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines,’ says Marogy.

      Depression has long been linked with a diet low in omega-3, and countries that consume a lot of these fats have lower incidence of this condition,’ she continues. ‘Research has shown that fish oil, which contains fatty acids EPA and DHA, can be as effective as antidepressants in the treatment of depression.

      ‘One theory as to why omega-3s are able to lift mood is that DHA primarily plays a role in developing neurons, while EPA is crucial for chemical signalling between brain cells and can influence serotonin levels.’

      Last updated: 07-06-2020

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