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Common Medications for Mood Disorders

written by: Nicole Etolen • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 2/8/2011

Mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder can drastically interfere with daily functioning. Fortunately, modern medicine has an arsenal of potential weapons in the form of mood disorders medications.

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    Mood disorders are psychological conditions that affect your mood and include the entire depression spectrum ranging from mild to severe and bipolar disorder. Mood disorders medications vary significantly in function and chemical composition. What works for one person may not work for another. A qualified medical professional will help decide which one is the best fit, and will monitor progress closely.

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    Antidepressants

    Antidepressants are typically the “go-to" medication for moderate to severe depression because so many different types are available, including SSRIs, SNRIs, tricyclic antidepressants and MAO inhibiters.

    Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are among the most popular because they are considered relatively safe and effective at treating symptoms of depression. SSRIs work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that may play a large role in mood stabilization. Balancing the chemical allows the brain to send and receive signals related to your mood more efficiently. Examples of SSRIs include Prozac, Celexa, Zoloft and Paxil. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, work in a similar fashion, except they also block the reabsorption of norepinephrine, a chemical that may play a role in anxiety disorders. Examples include Cymbalta and Effexor.

    Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) have been around since the mid-20th century and were the mood disorders medications of choice until SSRIs appeared on the scene. TCAs work by increasing serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain while simultaneously blocking the action of acetylcholine, another neurotransmitter thought to play a role in mood regulation. TCAs still available in the United States include Elavil, Tofranil and Norpramin.

    Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) were the first antidepressants created, according to the Mayo Clinic. While they are highly effective, they also carry a significant risk of dangerous side effects and require major lifestyle changes. Like their successors, they work by balancing the neurotransmitters thought to be responsible for mood control. However, they are not as selective as their successors; they also block other chemicals in both the brain and the digestive system. Patients taking MAOIs receive a long list of foods and medications they must avoid, including a variety of cheeses, certain meats, pickled foods and alcoholic beverages.

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    Mood Stabilizers

    While antidepressants may effectively combat moderate to severe depression, patients suffering from bipolar disorder, a condition characterized by cycles of depression followed by periods of manic behavior, often require a medication that can address both sides of the disorder. Psychiatrists often use mood stabilizers, such as Lithium, to fulfill this need. Research indicates that lithium works by reducing inflammation in the brain during manic phases.

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    Antipsychotics

    Traditionally used to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, antipsychotics have gained popularity in the treatment of manic episodes or mixed episodes consisting of both depression and mania. Antipsychotics affect the dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that, among other tasks, plays a major role in feelings of pleasure or accomplishment.

    Antipsychotics work by reducing dopamine, and therefore reducing the desire to seek pleasure in inappropriate manners. However, several doctors are concerned about the growing trend in prescribing antipsychotics as a mood disorders medication. In a January, 2011 Reuters article by Julie Steenhuysen, Dr. Caleb Alexander of the University of Chicago explained that Americans are taking millions of prescriptions of antipsychotic medications for conditions in which the evidence of effectiveness does not support their use. Antipsychotics are more expensive than other treatment options and carry the risk of significant weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.