The Science Behind Those Moody Blues

There was a long line at the coffee shop, and your shoe broke on the way back home. The dog had an accident on the living room carpet. Again. The client who promised you payment for work submitted last week still hasn’t cut the check, and you just learned that the babysitter you hired for Saturday night can’t make it.

On some days it doesn’t take much to turn a perfectly reasonable mood into a terrifyingly bad one. But the way we see moods — as uncontrollable beasts that take over our minds and bodies — probably causes more damage than the moods themselves. That’s because moods, whether good or bad, are really nothing more than signals sent out by the brain in response to certain conditions. Understanding them and their underlying neurology could actually lead to a better quality of life.

So, What’s Causing That Foul Mood, Anyway?

Did you ever experience a day that just kept going from bad to worse, with one negative thing happening after the other? It wasn’t the day — we’re sorry to say — it was you.

Bad moods are often caused by a psychological quirk called “ego depletion.” The idea, conceptualized by Roy Baumeister and Mark Muraven in the 1990s, is that, much like our physical resources, our mental resources are limited too. For example: If all of your patience was exhausted arguing with your spouse in the morning before breakfast, you’re going to have almost none left for the commuter who pushed you aside while getting on the subway.

It’s also why we tend to eat more and less healthy when we’re in the midst of a good old-fashioned case of the grumps. The brain, already tired and overexerted is too occupied with other problems to be able to resist that fatty slice of pizza or luscious dark chocolate.

What’s worse, eating large amounts of unhealthful food just leads to more bad moods. In a study conducted by Penn State, researchers found that eating junk food made participants feel worse than they did before they’d indulged in the binge-eating session.

And if you experience feeling anxious about binge eating and start losing sleep about your lack of self control, you can expect another negative mood the next morning because sleep deprivation, as it happens, can lead to some pretty bad tempers as well.

“Moods tend to fluctuate depending on chemical components,” says Virginia Biasizzo, an alternative health practitioner who formerly held positions at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. “When people feel happy, they are experiencing a dopamine surge that promotes a balance in neurotransmissions equating to elevated or heightened good feelings. As these chemical levels drop, we are no longer capable of writing the next neurotransmission, and therefore our mood shifts.”

The Second Brain And Its Effect On Your Mood

“The intestinal tract houses more than half of a human’s nerve cells,” explains Biasizzo. These nerve cells, found in the gut, resemble those in the brain and are capable of learning, remembering, and producing emotion and feelings. It is for this reason that intestinal nerve cells, or the enteric nervous system (ENS), are often referred to as a “second brain.”

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