Antidepressants are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2015 and 2018, a little over 13 percent of adults have used an antidepressant in the previous month. These drugs are commonly used to treat symptoms of depression. It stabilizes patients’ moods and helps them to feel better.
Common antidepressants include the following:
Despite how widely used they are, there are risks to using antidepressants. Read on to find out more about these risks.
How do antidepressants work?
Most antidepressants work by balancing out the levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a molecule that helps in the transmission of signals between brain cells (or neurons).
One theory behind depression is that the lower the concentration of serotonin in your brain, the more you will feel worse. If the amount of serotonin is too low, it contributes to depression.
By this logic, increasing the levels of serotonin in your brain should improve your mood. That’s what most antidepressants do.
The most common types of antidepressants are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They work by stopping neurons from absorbing serotonin. In effect, more serotonin is available outside neurons to help with signal transmission. This in turn improves your mood.
Antidepressants are not designed to provide quick relief from depressive symptoms. Instead, it can take several weeks for them to kick in. Normally, you would feel the first improvements within the first two weeks of taking them. After one to two months, the full effects can be felt.
Do antidepressants have side effects?
Like many other drugs, antidepressants also have side effects. A number of them pose risks to your health and well-being, such as:
- Blood clots
- Increased risk of internal bleeding
- Inability to feel emotions
- Elevated blood sugar
- Tachyphylaxis (sudden weak response to a drug)
- Suicidal tendencies
Other non-life-threatening side effects include:
- Decreased sex drive
- Weight gain
- Dry mouth
Neurotransmitters like serotonin do not just influence your mood. They also have other roles in the body, so altering their levels can cause these profound effects on other parts of your body.
The risks above generally develop in patients who have been on antidepressant medications for a long time already. If you’re still new to antidepressants, this is not a reason to stop your medication, though. Consult your doctor first if you have any concerns or problems with antidepressants.
These drugs also have the potential to cause physical dependence. If you’ve been on antidepressants for a long time, suddenly stopping your intake will produce withdrawal symptoms. Doctors may call this “discontinuation syndrome,” and it’s characterized by the following:
- Panic attacks
- Vivid dreams
- Ataxia (impaired coordination, balance, and speech)
- Brain zaps (an electric shock-like sensation in the brain)
When these symptoms become too uncomfortable to bear, they may force you to take more antidepressants just to make them go away. This is what it means to be “dependent” on these drugs.
Can antidepressants make me suicidal?
Studies have shown that antidepressants have a risk of increasing suicidal tendencies in children. For instance, a 2009 study published in the British Medical Journal found out that antidepressant use among children and young adults (below 24) was associated with a higher risk of suicidal behaviors. However, the same study discovered that adults 25 to 64 had no risk of developing suicidal tendencies when taking antidepressants. Additionally, those 65 and above had a reduced risk.
For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required drug companies in 2004 to include a warning of this risk in the labels of antidepressants. Also, most doctors avoid prescribing these drugs to young adults and teens for the same reason.
If you are not among the high risk group, but you still encounter suicidal thoughts while on your antidepressant medication, talk to your doctor immediately. He may have to prescribe a different antidepressant or advise you to stop it entirely.
Will I have to take antidepressants for life?
In most cases, you don’t. If you’re on an antidepressant for the first time, you may need to keep taking them for six to nine months. Once the symptoms of depression subside, talk to your doctor so you can decide the next step. He may advise you to decrease your dose over time.
Suddenly stopping use is not recommended, as it may produce discontinuation syndrome.
If your case of depression is more severe, you may have to stay on antidepressants for years. Still, you won’t have to take them for a lifetime.
Can my depression relapse after my medication is over?
Relapse is a real risk when taking antidepressants. When you’ve been on medication for a long time already, it’s possible that your body has become dependent on the drugs to relieve depressive symptoms. Once you stop taking them, there is a chance that the depression may return.
Are antidepressants really necessary if I have depression?
No. Not all cases of depression need to be treated with antidepressants. Work with your doctor to find out if you really need them. Here are some questions you can ask:
- Is my depression affecting my life enough that I need antidepressants?
- Is taking an antidepressant the best way to treat my depression?
- Are there non-medication treatments that can help me?
- Do I have any medical conditions that may be causing my depression?
- What are the risks and side effects of the antidepressant you will prescribe?
- What can I do on my own to reduce depressive symptoms?
- How will this antidepressant interact with the other drugs I’m taking?
- How long will I have to be on this antidepressant?
- Should I be taking other therapies along with the medication?
- Do I need to avoid eating or drinking anything while on this medication?
Other treatments, like behavioral therapies, can work just as well to combat depression. In some cases, they work even better than antidepressants.