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The Facts about Depression Medications

written by: Scott EIlers • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/7/2011

Depression medications refer to a broad category of psychotropic drugs used to treat symptoms of depression. The various types differ from one another in terms of mechanisms of action, efficacy, and side effects.

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    Overview of Depression Medications

    Depression medications, more commonly referred to as antidepressant medications or simply antidepressants, are a family of psychotropic medications designed to reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms of depressive disorders such as major depressive disorder and dysthymic disorder. In addition to their intended applications, antidepressant medications have been found to be effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and fibromyalgia. Antidepressants vary drastically from one another in terms of mechanisms of action, and since the physiological causes of depression vary from person to person antidepressants are typically prescribed on a trial-and-error basis until an effective medication is found for a given individual.

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    Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

    Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are designed to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain by decreasing the activity of serotonin reuptake pathways. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is primarily responsible for producing feelings of happiness and reward and is often lacking in the brains of many individuals with depression. SSRIs are typically the first type of antidepressant medication prescribed for patients with depression because the potential side effects are relatively minor. Those side effects can include nausea, gastrointestinal agitation, dry mouth, agitation or excess energy, and sexual dysfunction. Some specific brands of SSRIs include Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, and Zoloft.

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    Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

    Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, act on synapses that initiate reuptake of both serotonin and norepinephrine and so increase the levels of both of these neurotransmitters. In so doing these depression medications boost mood and provide a relief from depressive symptoms. Because SNRIs act on two different types of neurotransmitters they have a greater chance of success in reducing depressive symptoms. Side effects of SNRIs are generally similar to those of SSRIs and include nausea, problems with sleep, digestion problems, and dizziness. Specifics brands of SNRIs include Cymbalta, Effexor, and Pristiq.

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    Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs)

    Tricyclic antidepressants, or TCAs, also block the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine in a manner similar to that of SNRIs, except that instead of blocking the reuptake of these neurotransmitters TCAs block their absorption. Although effective, TCAs are typically only prescribed after other antidepressants such as SSRIs or SNRIs have been tried without success. This is because TCAs are more likely to produce unwanted side effects. Common side effects of include weight gain, sexual dysfunction, sensitivity to sunlight, dry mouth, blurred vision, drowsiness, and seizures. Specifics brands of TCAs include Amitryptaline, Vivactil, and Tofranil.

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    Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)

    Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs, prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters within the brain, which in turn increases the amount of dopamine. This neurotransmitter controls various functions including mood, sleep, and attention and has found to be deficient in the brains of many individuals suffering from clinical depression.

    Although an effective depression medication, MAOIs are typically considered a last resort because they can cause a number of serious side effects including potentially fatal interactions with foods containing tyramine such as cheese, beer, and many types of meat. Other side effects include weight gain, sexual dysfunction, fatigue, and low blood pressure. Specifics brands of MAOIs include Marplan, Nardil, and Parnate.

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    References

    Food and Drug Administration: Understanding Antidepressant Medications - http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm095980.htm

    Mayo Clinic: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/ssris/MH00066

    Mayo Clinic: Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/antidepressants/MH00067

    Mayo Clinic: Tricyclic Antidepressants - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/antidepressants/MH00071

    Mayo Clinic: Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/maois/MH00072