Sex steroid induced negative mood may be explained by the paradoxical effect mediated by GABAA modulators

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009 Sep;34(8):1121-32. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.02.003. Epub 2009 Mar 9.


Certain women experience negative mood symptoms as a result of progesterone during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, progestagens in hormonal contraceptives, or the addition of progesterone or progestagens in sequential hormone therapy (HT). This phenomenon is believed to be mediated via the action of the progesterone metabolites on the GABA(A) system, which is the major inhibitory system in the mammalian CNS. The positive modulators of the GABA(A) receptor include allopregnanolone and pregnanolone, both neuroactive metabolites of progesterone, as well as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and alcohol. Studies on the effect of GABA(A) receptor modulators have shown contradictory results; although human and animal studies have revealed beneficial properties such as anaesthesia, sedation, anticonvulsant effects, and anxiolytic effects, recent reports have also indicated adverse effects such as anxiety, irritability, and aggression. It has actually been suggested that several GABA(A) receptor modulators, including allopregnanolone, have biphasic effects, in that low concentrations increase an adverse, anxiogenic effect whereas higher concentrations decrease this effect and show beneficial, calming properties. The allopregnanolone increase during the luteal phase in fertile women, as well as during the addition of progesterone in HT, has been shown to induce adverse mood in women. The severity of these mood symptoms is related to the allopregnanolone serum concentrations in a manner similar to an inverted U-shaped curve. Negative mood symptoms occur when the serum concentration of allopregnanolone is similar to endogenous luteal phase levels, while low and high concentrations have less effect on mood. It has also been shown that progesterone/allopregnanolone treatment in women increases the activity in the amygdala (as measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging) in a similar way to the changes seen during anxiety reactions. However, it is evident that only certain women experience adverse mood during progesterone or GABA(A) receptor modulator treatments. Women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) have severe luteal phase related symptoms; in this phase, they show changes in GABA(A) receptor sensitivity and GABA concentrations that are related to the severity of the condition. These findings suggest that negative mood symptoms in women with PMDD are caused by the paradoxical effect of allopregnanolone mediated via the GABA(A) receptor.

Conclusion: Progesterone and progestagens induce negative mood, most probably via their GABA(A) receptor active metabolites. In postmenopausal women treated with progesterone and animals treated with allopregnanolone, there is a bimodal association between serum allopregnanolone concentration and adverse mood, resembling an inverted U-shaped curve. In humans, the maximal effective concentration of allopregnanolone for producing negative mood is within the range of physiological luteal phase serum concentrations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect / drug effects*
  • Affect / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Contraceptives, Oral / pharmacology
  • Female
  • GABA Agents / pharmacology*
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Models, Psychological
  • Pregnanolone / blood*
  • Premenstrual Syndrome / metabolism


  • Contraceptives, Oral
  • GABA Agents
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Pregnanolone