Mood Stabilizers: What Are They and How Do They Work?
We all have good days and bad days, the normal ups and downs that come with a life well lived.
However, for people living with mood disorders, those ups and downs come much more frequently and intensely.
Those mood disorders, and anxiety and depression in general, are as individual as we are. Because of this, each treatment approach must be slightly different as well, so that it can meet the specific needs and preferences of the person being treated.
Unfortunately, the way people choose to treat (or not treat) their own mood disorders can end up subjecting them to a sometimes intense and unfair amount of scrutiny and judgement. To help, we’re here to take on the subject of mood stabilizers with a primer on what they are, how they work, and other commonly asked questions about a frequently misunderstood subject.
What Is a Mood Stabilizer?
To begin, mood stabilizers are essentially what they sound like: medications that people can take to help with and stabilize fluctuations in their mood. These fluctuations can occur quickly or with days or weeks between them.
Normally, mood stabilizers consist of a few specific anticonvulsant medications (lamotrigine, carbamazepine, valproate sodium) as well as lithium. They can be used to prevent future mood fluctuations as well as treat current symptoms, but are commonly taken long term so that they can work most effectively.
The issue with defining a mood stabilizer is that they are not necessarily characterized by the way that they work (like many other drugs are), but instead by the effect they have on the body.
They are also frequently misunderstood, as people think that they stop all fluctuations in mood. Even on a mood stabilizer, you will still be able to feel your feelings. The medication just stops those feelings from being too overwhelming and intense. When combined with supplements and therapy, moods are kept in check so that life can be managed effectively.
Mood stabilizers are just one tool in the anxiety and depression treatment toolbox.
How Do Mood Stabilizers Work?
With certain mood disorders, the neurotransmitters in the brain (which are used to convey messages back and forth between nerves) become confused and dysregulated. The four most commonly involved neurotransmitters - dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, and serotonin - each create their own specific symptoms of anxiety and depression when not functioning properly.
The way that mood stabilizers are thought to work is by targeting those neurotransmitters as well as their receptors (where the “message” arrives). Different mood stabilizers work in different ways, but the goal is to alter the amount present in the brain as well as protecting the overall cells in the brain from damage during times of increased stress.
In many cases, stabilizing mood fluctuations involves being able to reduce feelings of mania instead of helping combat depression.
Ultimately, though, the science and understanding behind the exact action behind mood stabilizers is still a work in progress. It seems to be fairly complex, even for scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying these questions. In a very general way, mood stabilizers reduce the transmission of both dopamine and glutamate while also enhancing the production and transmission of GABA and serotonin.
In any case, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for any mood stabilizer to build up in the body enough to see a difference. If you’re struggling with intense anxiety, a few weeks can seem like a very long time to wait.
What Mood Disorders Are Mood Stabilizers Used to Treat?
In the vast majority of cases, mood stabilizers are used to treat bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder, more than most of the other mood disorders out there, is defined by extreme fluctuations in mood (both mania and depression). According to some statistics, bipolar disorder affects around 4% of the population in the United States.
Mood stabilizers can also be used to help treat other mood disorders as well, in addition to generalized mood instability. Common mood disorders treated by mood stabilizers include:
- Cyclothymia - A milder mood disorder defined by less intense mood fluctuations.
- Borderline Personality Disorder (or BPD) - A personality disorder defined by mood instability.
- Schizophrenia - A prominent mood disorder where the way the person interprets reality is skewed.
However, mood stabilizers are not commonly used to treat mild depression and anxiety. In a lot of situations, the potential side effects outweigh the advantages of treatment. Other medications, as well as holistic approaches and therapy, are preferred.
Are There Any Side Effects Associated With Mood Stabilizers?
Much like any medication, mood stabilizers do come with a variety of different side effects. The majority of them are considered transient (meaning that they will either get better or stop entirely within the first few weeks), but some of them do persist for the entirety of treatment.
- GI complaints - This is the most commonly reported side effect of taking mood stabilizers, and includes nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Often, taking the medication with a meal can help avoid these concerns.
- Changes in blood work - Part of long term mood stabilizer usage involves regular blood work to monitor the body’s blood chemistry for any changes. Commonly noted changes involve either an increase or decrease in white or red blood cells as well as the body’s calcium level or its ability to clot the blood. These changes can range from mostly benign to severe.
- Rash or acne - Most skin concerns associated with mood stabilizers are mostly mild but, in some cases, they can progress and cause larger, systemic problems like Stevens-Johnson syndrome (which can be fatal).
- Fine tremors - More common with higher doses of mood stabilizers, fine tremors of the hands, as well as overall shakiness or unsteadiness, can be seen.
Other possible side effects include:
- Weight gain
- Blurry vision
- Kidney disease
- Memory impairment
- Hair loss/thinning
With such a large amount of potential side effects, even transient ones, it’s no wonder that so many people are wondering about natural alternatives before taking the leap into mood stabilizers to treat their symptoms.
Are There Any Natural Alternatives to Mood Stabilizers?
Yes and no. For people suffering from extreme fluctuations in mood, like those with bipolar disorder, there are often no natural alternatives that can effectively take the place of a mood stabilizer.
However, for those that are just looking to help support their mental health and overall mood health, there are natural ingredients that can support both.
One of the best supplemental nutrients out there to help support mental health and mood is Rhodiola Rosea.* It is also one of the most studied. Many people who regularly take Rhodiola Rosea report feelings of calmness, as well as an increase in their mood overall.* It works as an “adaptogen,” which is essentially a natural product that can be used to help assist the body both resist and adapt to periods of stress.* This stress can be physical, environmental, chemical, emotional, or mental.
Rhodiola Rosea works best when used in combination with other supplements, like L-Theanine. L-Theanine, instead of being an adaptogen like Rhodiola Rosea, is an amino acid. It is reported to take effect quickly, within 30 minutes, to help promote feelings of calm and relaxation.* L-Theanine also supports healthy cognition, and can improve focus.* It does all of this by preventing glutamate from being able to bind and trigger the fight or flight response.
One last natural alternative to help support healthy mood is a neurotransmitter called GABA. GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid for the scientifically inclined) is naturally occurring in the body, specifically in the central nervous system. It is made in the brain and is used to help regulate the body’s “fight or flight” response, essentially helping with feelings of restlessness by blocking the brain signals that trigger it.*
Taking GABA as a supplement is a way to help increase the amount of these specific neurotransmitters in the body, further supporting a calm mood and alleviating feelings of stress both physically and mentally. L-theanine, specifically, can help stimulate GABA’s production in the brain.*
As you might imagine, taking one product that has all of these supplements is a great, yet simple way to help naturally boost your mood without having to remember to take a ton of supplements, which is what PYM has set out to do. We’re all about making life as easy as possible, especially when it comes to being able to support happy, healthy emotional wellbeing.
Everyone’s mood fluctuates. It’s a normal part of the human experience, especially during times of stress.
Supplements like PYM Mood Chews are a good addition to a healthy lifestyle to help manage and alleviate stress, and promote healthy mental wellness.
No matter which way you go, the ultimate goal is for everyone to be able to live the happy life that they truly deserve.
*FDA Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.