What Are Mood Stabilizers?

Mood stabilizers are psychiatric medications that can help control an individual’s mood swings ranging from mania and depression. They are prescribed to restore the neurochemical balance in a person by decreasing brain activity. It’s important to note that mood stabilizer drugs are commonly used to treat individuals with the following disorders:

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Bipolar mood disorder

In a few cases, mood stabilizers are used to supplement various medications, such as antidepressants, which are used to treat depression.  

How Do Mood Stabilizers Work?

One of the most common questions, when it revolves around mood stabilizers, is, “How do mood stabilizers work? Or “What do mood stabilizers do?” The way that mood stabilizers work isn’t understood. 

It has been mentioned that the drugs work in various ways to bring about a sense of calm and stability to the areas of the brain that have become overactive or overstimulated. The main goal is to prevent this state from even developing. 

What Are Examples of Mood Stabilizers?

The most studied and oldest mood stabilizer is Lithium. However, many drugs were first developed as anticonvulsants to act as mood stabilizers and treat epilepsy such as Divaloprex, Lamotrigine, and Carbamazepine. Topiramate and Gabapentin are also anticonvulsants that act as mood stabilizers but are usually given in addition to other medications. 

As previously mentioned the most widely used stabilizing drug is Lithium, which was discovered in the 1940s. The clinical properties of other mood stabilizers such as Carbamazepine or Valproic acid were discovered in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s imperative to understand that these medications listed here today do not “cure” mood swings, but often provide significant relief from many symptoms. 

Lithium (Lithium Citrate or Lithium Carbonate) 

Lithium (Duralith, Lithane, and Carbolith) is found in nature, in some mineral waters, yet also present tiny amounts in the human body. It is used to treat mania and further prevent depression and mania episodes. 

Valporic Acid, Valproate, or Divalproex

The varying names for this anticonvulsant medication reflect the numerous ways in which it is formulated. Divalproex (along with various forms) is used for acute manic episodes. The main brand names are Epival and Depakene. 


Carbamazepine (Tegretol) is known as another anticonvulsant. It is used for mania and mixed states that don’t respond to Lithium or when the individual becomes aggressive or irritable. 


Lamotrigine (Lamictal) might be the most effective mood stabilizer for depression in bipolar disorder, but it is not as effective for mania. This medication is the best medication for bipolar depression. The starting dose of Lamotrigine should start very low and gradually increase for four weeks or more. This type of approach will decrease the risk of a severe rash forming. The rash is considered to be one of the most dangerous side effects of this drug.

What Are Some Side Effects of Mood Stabilizers?

The side effects of mood stabilizers greatly vary depending on the type of medication given. With a few medications, side effects are normally kept to a minimum through being constantly monitored regarding the level of the drug in the blood. Some individuals do not experience any side effects.

Others might find that the side effects are distressing. The mood stabilizer side effects typically lessen as the treatment continues. If the side effects are not tolerable or mild, let your doctor know as soon as possible. Your doctor might do the following:

  • Suggest you take the medication at a different time of day, or with food
  • Prescribed other medications to help control side effects
  • Change your medication 
  • Adjust your dose

Lithium Side Effects

Most of the side effects are related directly to how much Lithium is in a person’s bloodstream. 

  • Feeling thirsty, and needing to urinate more frequently
  • A metallic taste in your mouth 
  • Stomach pain 
  • Feeling sick
  • Weight gain 
  • Shaking 

It is advised to receive blood tests to ensure that there is a safe level of Lithium in your blood. When an individual is taking Lithium, the amount of sodium in a person’s body can be altered. This can lead to higher levels of Lithium which can cause poisoning. 

During this state, the following can worsen matters.

  • Not drinking enough water
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Other medications

Before Taking Lithium

An individual will undergo a group of lab tests including the following:

  • A complete blood test – This measures the number of red and white blood cells and platelets to guarantee that these cells are at normal levels, that the body can function normally in case of injury, and there are no known infections. 
  • Serum creatinine tests – This is a type of test of kidney function. Since having adequate kidney function is paramount to clearing Lithium from the system, this test is extremely important. 
  • Tests for hormones, electrolytes, urine components, and thyroid in particular – These indicate the overall basic health of an individual. They also can provide baseline levels for comparison during the Lithium treatment. 

Valproate Side Effects

  • Feeling sick and stomach upset
  • Problems concentrating
  • Hallucinations
  • Feeling sleepy
  • Memory loss
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Deafness
  • Hair loss
  • Tremors

When it comes to women specifically, Valproate can cause testosterone levels. This can lead to periods of abnormal hair growth and periods being stopped. Valproate might be linked to a condition that is called polycystic ovaries in women. In turn, this affects how ovaries work and can cause the following symptoms:

  • Problems getting pregnant
  • Excessive body hair
  • Irregular periods
  • Acne

If you are pregnant, Valproate can cause problems with your unborn child. Valproate can also affect how your liver works. So it’s advised that you take regular tests to check your liver. The NICE guidelines recommend testing your liver at the beginning of treatment and then every six months after that. 

Lamotrigine Side Effects

  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Becoming agitated
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches
  • Drowsiness
  • Tiredness
  • Dry mouth
  • Joint pain
  • Dizziness
  • Aggression
  • Tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Tremors

Carbamazepine Side Effects

  • Increased sensitivity to the sun 
  • Vomiting or mild cramps
  • Poor coordination
  • Skin sensitivity 
  • Muscle tremor
  • Blurred vision
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion 
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Rashes

How Do I Know if I Need a Mood Stabilizer?

Your doctor might prescribe you a mood stabilizer if you have an episode of hypomania, mania, or depression that alters quickly or worsens suddenly. This is called having an acute episode. Some individuals need to take mood stabilizers as a long-term treatment plan to stop the acute episodes from occurring. 

Are Mood Stabilizers Addictive?

Drugs that are considered to be addictive produce a strong desire to continue using the drug, a need to increase the amount used to achieve the same effect, and a euphoric feeling. If you’re asking yourself, “How do mood stabilizers work?” Or “What do mood stabilizers do?” Mood stabilizers aren’t addictive, however, when you take them for months or years, your body will adjust to their presence of them. 

If you stop using the drug suddenly, the absence of the drug can result in withdrawal symptoms or a return of symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms within mood stabilizers are generally mild. It’s important to note that the greatest risk with stopping these drugs is the return of the symptoms. 

Do They Affect Other Medications?

Some medications can affect the blood levels of mood stabilizers, meaning that your dose of mood stabilizers might have to be adjusted to be taken with other medications. The mood stabilizers, especially Carbamazepine might also reduce the actual effectiveness of other drugs. This is why it’s paramount that your doctors and dentists be informed of what you are taking before prescribing any medication. 

It is advised that you inform your physician if you are taking any other medications before starting or stopping any mood stabilizers. This includes complementary or herbal medications such as St. Johns Wort. There are many over the counter common medications that can cause severe effects when taken with mood stabilizers such as:

  • Paracetamol 
  • Ibuprofen
  • Codeine

Your doctor will be able to advise you on whether your mood stabilizer will affect any of your other medications. It’s also advised to check in with your pharmacist before using any over the counter medications, such as:

  • Cold or allergy tablets
  • Pain medications 
  • Herbal remedies
  • Cough syrups

Stabilize Your Mood at Sana Lake

If you’re struggling with a mood disorder, and asking yourself the following questions, “What do mood stabilizers do?” Or “How do mood stabilizers work?” Here at Sana Lake, we’ll be able to not only answer your questions but counteract them with mental health treatment. Your journey awaits you.