What Causes Hormonal Mood Swings and How To Balance Them

There’s a certain type of mood swing that causes me to check my period tracking app every month. Usually it’s after I’ve cried at a car commercial, snapped at my mom for saying my name in a weird way, decided I’m utterly unlovable when a friend doesn’t text back right away, or just generally feel like an overly sensitive, easily irritated, walking raw wound.


A majority of women report experiencing unpredictable mood swings or emotional instability at some point in their cycle, particularly during the luteal phase directly before menstruation (otherwise known as PMS). 


Mood swings can emerge seemingly out of nowhere and range from anger to anxiety to depression, and it’s common to find yourself alternating between sadness and irritability during that time (if you’ve ever angry cried, you know what I’m talking about).  Mood swings make it difficult to process emotions, and govern our reactions to stressful situations. 


While we are still not entirely sure what causes these pre-period fluctuations (like many areas of reproductive health, it’s understudied), it is widely thought that hormonal imbalances play a key role in scrambling our moods. The two main hormones that are fluctuating during the luteal phase are estrogen and progesterone, and together they create a rapid cycling rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. 


Estrogen levels peak in order to initiate ovulation, then start to plummet, eventually decreasing enough to trigger menstruation. Low levels of estrogen have been linked to a drop in serotonin, and when that happens, you can wave your good mood goodbye. At the same time, progesterone floods our system, preparing for menstruation, causing an imbalanced seesawing effect between the two hormones. A lack of estrogen can cause irritability, anxiety, and anger, while a Swedish study found that an uptick in progesterone can have the same depressive effect on the brain as alcohol or sleeping pills, triggering weepiness, bleariness, and sensitivity. 


So how can we better ride out these hormonal peaks and valleys each month? As with many things in life, it all comes down to balance. Attempting to stabilize your nervous system as much as possible while your hormones do their thing can lessen the intensity, frequency, and severity of your mood swings. You can do this by ensuring you get eight hours of quality sleep, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, and eating small, frequent meals throughout the day in order to quell low blood sugar swings. And I know you’ve heard it a million times, but exercise never hurts - you can get mood boosting endorphins just from going on a brisk walk around the block. 


Eating complex carbohydrates, liver-boosting veggies, and foods rich in phytoestrogens (which affects the body in the same way as natural estrogen) such as soybeans, tofu, and lentils have been noted to help balance moods. Supplementing your diet with calcium, vitamins D and B12, and products containing natural herbs like Rhodiola rosea, can also regulate your stress response and give your adrenals some TLC. 


Lastly, some people consider luteal mood swings to be our repressed emotions from the past month surfacing as our bodies go through their internal monthly transformation. Consider asking your anxiety or irritability or sadness why it’s coming up and what it’s trying to tell you. Listen to your body. Pay attention. It’s a bit woo woo, but don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. It just may surprise you.


Written by Alison Green

Alison Green is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles who is inspired by the desert, dreams, daily routines, and intimacy in its myriad forms. More of her work can be found at alisondgreen.com.