Time and time again we’ve seen those infomercials about the new up-and-coming miracle mood-enhancing supplement or drug only to discover that it either doesn’t work or has a mile-long list of side effects. Americans as a whole suffer from all sorts of mood disorders that are either an inconvenience or simply rule their lives. If mood has such a powerful effect and influences us so much, then might it be worth investigating what is going on inside of us (physiologically) and what is available to help keep it under control? When life gives us lemons or throws us a curveball, let’s figure out what neural circuits snap, crackle, and pop to tell us to make lemonade or throw in the towel.
WHAT IS A MOOD, REALLY?
According to Merriam-Webster, the main definition for mood is “a conscious state of mind or predominant emotion”. The actual word mood is derived from an old English word which refers to military courage, but also could describe a person's temper, humor, or mental disposition at a given time. A mood can be either good, bad, or neutral (a mix of good and bad). When we are in a “good” or “positive” mood, there has been evidence that shows we can think more creatively and slightly boosts our cognitive performance1. Conversely, when we are in a “bad” or “negative” mood, some of the opposite effects occur2. Interestingly, many factors influence our daily mood. Our mood can be greatly influenced by poor diet3 …when we eat bad, we feel bad. When we are sleep deprived, we also generally tend to get more anxious and even a bit depressed4. It has even been suggested that the very facial expressions we make influence our mood5. One of the influencers of mood that is often overlooked is the change in seasons. S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a mood disorder in which people experience depressive symptoms during certain times of the year, most often being in winter. According to a couple of researchers, as much as 6% of the US population, primarily in northern climates, are affected by SAD in its most marked form. Another 14% of the adult US population suffers from a lesser form of seasonal mood changes, known as winter blues6.
MOOD AND PHYSIOLOGY
Since there are quite several mood disorders that many of us suffer from, it might be beneficial to focus on just a few and try to understand what is happening within certain regions of our brain. Depression is one of the most predominant of the mood disorders that millions of people throughout the country battle with. Major Depressive Disorder (or MDD) is one type of depression in which the pathophysiology is not clearly understood, as in many other major mood disorders. However, the current theories seem to pivot around sleep cycles, the way neurons talk to each other, and the actual hard-wiring of neural/emotional circuits. The way neurons communicate can be called the monoaminergic theory and revolves around two things: the amount of certain neurotransmitters involved in mood (namely serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine) and the way the neurotransmitters are received and their lifespans. In many cases of depression, it is widely accepted that these three monoamines are the main cast members7. In regards to the management and lifespans of these monoamines, certain genetic disorders can lead to their accelerated degradation or insufficient synthesis. When this happens with serotonin, for example, major symptoms of depression can be seen8, as well as other symptoms like insomnia, loss of appetite, etc.
Other factors that seem to be correlated with depression are sleep/wake cycles, in which certain insomnia sufferers have struggled with depression, due to the physiological link9 in which again serotonin becomes the main culprit. Even the immune system abnormalities have been linked to depression10,11. The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and cytokine inhibitors in combating depression, as well as the normalization of immune cell levels after the treatment also suggests a link between immune system abnormalities and depression. So, we see that certain mood disorders like depression aren’t always exactly “in our heads”, but other parts of the body as well.
MEDICINAL & NATURAL MOOD INFLUENCERS
Now that we understand a little about what triggers certain mood disorders and what some of the mechanisms of action are, it might be interesting to look into what is out there to help combat some of these physiological and psychological symptoms.
Within the synthetic medicinal/pharma route of treating certain mood disorders like anxiety and depression, there are too many prescription drugs to list in this article. However, within the anxiolytics family, physicians often prescribe drugs that act as antihistamines such as Hydroxyzine, benzodiazepines such as Xanax, opioids such as Hydrocodone, etc. The antihistamines act on certain regions of the brain that control the way neurons talk to each other (namely the cholinergic routes) and create mild sedative effects12, while the benzodiazepines act on other regions of the brain that are rich in what are called GABA receptors13 which are directly responsible for “slowing the brain down”. The barbiturates, opioids, carbamates, sympatholytics, etc. all work in similar ways to reduce neural firing to achieve a sedative-like state of mind. Conversely, the class of antidepressant drugs is also extremely popular in the pharma world. These drugs include classes such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), cyclics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI’s), and so on. Many of these drugs like the SSRI’s and MAO inhibitors cause their antidepressant actions by allowing our “happy neurotransmitters” like serotonin and norepinephrine to accumulate in tiny areas where two neurons interact and tell our brains “we feel good”. Likewise, the cyclic antidepressants act as SSRI’s and sometimes are prescribed when the others fail.
Switching over from the synthetic drug route to the natural/alternative medicine route, there are myriads of different phytochemicals in nature’s pharmacy that act in similar ways to the prescription drugs.
NEW IN RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT
It seems as the years go by, more and more evidence surfaces as to new ways we can use science and technology to help depress the depression. Interestingly, as electronics and technology advances, the healthcare/mental healthcare industries are beginning to tap into alternatives to supplements and medication in regards to treating mental health disorders. Techniques such as usage of social media platforms, wearable technology (clothing, bracelets, etc.), and even virtual reality therapy have been utilized24. Even the use of cybertherapy (data gloves in conjunction with cyberspace software) has shown promise to assist in the treatment of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, etc.25. So, using digital and ingestible technology to treat mood disorders may very well be on the horizon, if not already put into practice.
Regardless of race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, or any other category a person may fall into, mood plays a role in everyone’s life. Our days are wonderful when we are in a GOOD mood, but the days when our mood is not so wonderful, for some of us more often than not, just getting through the day can be difficult. It is encouraging to know however, that science is on the rise to assist those of us who need a little assistance with… Our Mood.
Chad Brey, a California State University, Northridge alumnus, has since worked as a chemist for various analytical and research facilities such as Amgen, Baxter, and Nusil Technology. Since 1997 he has worked in the dietary supplement industry for companies such as Earthwise Nutrition (formerly known as Great Earth Vitamins) and has earned a number of certificates as an IACET-certified dietary supplement specialist. Chad has written dozens of technical articles on the specifics of how certain dietary supplements work. Chad has formulated and developed small and large molecules in research and development laboratories since 2003 and continues to consult others in R&D today.