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Depression Medications

There are several types of antidepressant medications used to treat depressive disorders. These include newer medications, chiefly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the tricyclics, and the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). The SSRIs, and other newer medications that affect neurotransmitters such as dopamine or norepinephrine, generally have fewer side effects than tricyclics. Sometimes your doctor will try a variety of antidepressants before finding the medication or combination of medications most effective for you. Sometimes the dosage must be increased to be effective. Antidepressant medications must be taken regularly for as many as 8 weeks before the full therapeutic effect occurs.

Patients often are tempted to stop medication too soon. They may feel better and think they no longer need the medication. Or they may think the medication isn't helping at all. It is important to keep taking medication until it has a chance to work, though side effects may appear before antidepressant activity does. Once the individual is feeling better, it is important to continue the medication for 4 to 9 months to prevent a recurrence of the depression. Some medications must be stopped gradually to give the body time to adjust. For individuals with bipolar disorder or chronic major depression, medication may have to be maintained indefinitely.

Antidepressant drugs are not habit-forming. However, as is the case with any type of medication prescribed for more than a few days, antidepressants have to be carefully monitored to see if the correct dosage is being given. The doctor will check the dosage and its effectiveness regularly.

For the small number of people for whom MAO inhibitors are the best treatment, it is necessary to avoid certain foods that contain high levels of tyramine, such as many cheeses, wines, and pickles, as well as medications such as decongestants. The interaction of tyramine with MAOIs can bring on a hypertensive crisis, a sharp increase in blood pressure that can lead to a stroke. The doctor should furnish a complete list of prohibited foods that the patient should carry at all times. Other forms of antidepressants require no food restrictions.

Medications of any kind, prescribed, over-the counter, or borrowed, should never be mixed without consulting the doctor. Other health professionals who may prescribe a drug, such as a dentist or other medical specialist, should be told that the patient is taking antidepressants. Some drugs, although safe when taken alone can, if taken with others, cause severe and dangerous side effects. Some drugs, like alcohol or street drugs, may reduce the effectiveness of antidepressants and should be avoided. This includes wine, beer, and hard liquor. Some people who have not had a problem with alcohol use may be permitted by their doctor to use a modest amount of alcohol while taking one of the newer antidepressants.

Anti-anxiety drugs or sedatives are not antidepressants. They are sometimes prescribed along with antidepressants; however, they are not effective when taken alone for a depressive disorder. Stimulants, such as amphetamines, are not first-line antidepressants and share the habit-forming risks of antianxiety medications and sleeping pills.

Questions about any antidepressant prescribed, or problems that may be related to the medication, should be discussed with the doctor.

Lithium has for many years been the treatment of choice for bipolar disorder, as it can be effective in smoothing out the mood swings common to this disorder. Its use must be carefully monitored, as the range between an effective dose and a toxic one is small. If a person has pre-existing thyroid, kidney, or heart disorders or epilepsy, lithium may not be recommended. Fortunately, other medications have been found to be of benefit in controlling mood swings. Among these are two mood-stabilizing anticonvulsants, carbamazepine (Tegretol®) and valproate (Depakote®). Both of these medications have gained wide acceptance in clinical practice, and valproate has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for first-line treatment of acute mania. Other anticonvulsants that are being used now include lamotrigine (Lamictal®) and gabapentin (Neurontin®). Most people who have bipolar disorder take more than one medication including, along with lithium and/or an anticonvulsant, a medication for accompanying agitation, anxiety, or insomnia. Finding the best possible combination of these medications is of utmost importance to the patient and requires close monitoring by the physician.

Existing antidepressant drugs are known to influence the functioning of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, primarily serotonin and norepinephrine, known as monoamines. Older medications – tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) – affect the activity of both of these neurotransmitters simultaneously. Their disadvantage is that they can be difficult to tolerate due to side effects or, in the case of MAOIs, dietary restrictions. Newer medications, such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have fewer side effects than the older drugs, making it easier for patients to adhere to treatment. Both generations of medications are effective in relieving depression, although some people will respond to one type of drug, but not another.

Antidepressant medications take several weeks to be clinically effective even though they begin to alter brain chemistry with the very first dose. Research now indicates that antidepressant effects result from slow-onset adaptive changes within the brain cells, or neurons. Further, it appears that activation of chemical messenger pathways within neurons, and changes in the way that genes in brain cells are expressed, are the critical events underlying long-term adaptations in neuronal function relevant to antidepressant drug action. A current challenge is to understand the mechanisms that mediate, within cells, the long-term changes in neuronal function produced by antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs and to understand how these mechanisms are altered in the presence of illness.

Knowing how and where in the brain antidepressants work can aid the development of more targeted and potent medications that may help reduce the time between first dose and clinical response. Further, clarifying the mechanisms of action can reveal how different drugs produce side effects and can guide the design of new, more tolerable, treatments.

As one route toward learning about the distinct biological processes that go awry in different forms of depression, researchers are investigating the differential effectiveness of various antidepressant medications in people with particular subtypes of depression. For example, this research has revealed that people with atypical depression, a subtype characterized by reactivity of mood (mood brightens in response to positive events) and at least two other symptoms (weight gain or increased appetite, oversleeping, intense fatigue, or rejection sensitivity), respond better to treatment with MAOIs, and perhaps with SSRIs than with TCAs.

Many patients and clinicians find that combinations of different drugs work most effectively for treating depression, either by enhancing the therapeutic action or reducing side effects. Although combination strategies are used often in clinical practice, there is little research evidence available to guide psychiatrists in prescribing appropriate combination treatment.

Untreated depression often has an accelerating course, in which episodes become more frequent and severe over time. Researchers are now considering whether early intervention with medications and maintenance treatment during well periods will prevent recurrence of episodes. To date, there is no evidence of any adverse effects of long-term antidepressant use.


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