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Antidepressants refer to a class of psychiatric drugs that is designed to treat mood disorders. While these types of drugs are most commonly prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of depression, they are occasionally prescribed for other mental health disorders like anxiety.

Antidepressants can be broken down into several distinct groups. These groups are classified according to the specific neurotransmitters that are targeted by the drug. Depression and related conditions are extremely complex, and they can vary considerably from one person to the next. As a result, it is not always easy for a person who is suffering from depression to find an effective antidepressant.

What are Antidepressants?

To understand what antidepressants are, it helps to understand that they are designed to affect specific neurotransmitters in the brain. Today’s most popular antidepressants generally affect one of three neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine or dopamine.

  • Serotonin: The class of antidepressants that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin is typically referred to as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. They work by preventing the reuptake of serotonin, which helps to maintain higher levels of it in the brain. SSRIs are currently the most commonly prescribed antidepressants.
  • Norepinephrine: Antidepressants that affect the norepinephrine and serotonin neurotransmitters are collectively known as serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors or SNRIs. For some patients, maintaining adequate levels of both neurotransmitters is an effective way to treat depression and other psychiatric disorders.
  • Dopamine: Although they are less commonly prescribed, certain antidepressants are formulated to affect the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Doctors are often able to surmise the ideal antidepressant for a patient based on his specific symptoms. However, there is no clear or easy way to determine which neurotransmitters are to blame for depression, which is why prescribing antidepressants is often a hit or miss proposition.

Many patients have to try several different types of antidepressants before finding one that works. In some cases, a second antidepressant may be required to arrive at the best solution.

What are Antidepressants Used to Treat?

As the name implies, an antidepressant is most commonly used to treat moderate to severe depression. There are many different types of antidepressants, however, which is why a doctor must take a patient’s specific symptoms into account before prescribing one. A patient is said to suffer from depression when he has feelings of hopelessness, emptiness and ongoing sadness that persist for two weeks or more.

When a patient’s basic depression symptoms are accompanied by an inability to sleep, he may be prescribed an antidepressant that has a slightly sedating effect. If a patient’s depression is accompanied by fatigue and tiredness during the day, an antidepressant with a slightly stimulating effect may be prescribed. It is important for a patient to be thoroughly evaluated before an antidepressant is prescribed, as it will increase the odds of finding an optimal solution the first time.

Common Side Effects of Antidepressants

Most patients experience at least one side effect when taking antidepressants. It should be noted that side effects often subside after a few weeks. Common side effects of antidepressants include daytime sleepiness, constipation, diarrhea, shakiness, headache, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, weight gain and sexual problems.

In rare instances, serious side effects of antidepressants are possible. One of the most worrisome examples is serotonin syndrome, which refers to the presence of excessive amounts of serotonin in the brain. Symptoms may include fever, loss of coordination, confusion, hallucinations, vomiting and rapid heart rate.

Studies have shown that six out of 10 people feel better from the first antidepressant that they try. One common pitfall is that, after feeling better, a patient may discontinue the use of the prescribed antidepressant. In some cases, this can cause serious, life-threatening side effects. Before discontinuing the use of any antidepressant, a patient should speak to his or her doctor.

Deciding if Antidepressants are Right for You

If you suffer from ongoing symptoms of depression such as feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and extreme sadness, talk to your doctor to see if antidepressants are a viable option for you. They can evaluate your symptoms to determine whether antidepressants may help your depression, and can also assist you in managing any side effects of antidepressants that might appear.