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What are Anti-Depressants?

Sally Foster
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Anti-depressants are mood-stabilizing drugs used to treat a variety of conditions, including moderate to severe depressive disorder, anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder. First discovered in the early 1950s, anti-depressants have become an effective tool in combating depression and other disorders. Anti-depressants were first discovered by accident when a drug called Iproniazid, originally developed to treat tuberculosis, was found to ease symptoms of depression. Although scientists are still not sure exactly what causes depression, it is believed that some neurotransmitters — the chemicals that pass messages between brain cells — greatly affect a person's mood. Anti-depressants work by increasing the activity of these neurotransmitters.

There are four main types of anti-depressants used today. The earliest mood-stabilizing drugs belonged to a group of medications known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). MAOIs work by stopping the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, thus increasing the amount of these chemicals present in the body. Typically prescribed for depression and social anxiety, MAOIs can cause very serious drug and food interactions. Due to their dangerous nature, these drugs are usually prescribed today only for patients who have not responded to other treatments.

After the discovery of MAOIs, scientists developed tricyclic anti-depressants (TCAs). TCAs cause fewer side effects than MAOIs and were therefore the preferred method of treatment for many years. TCAs are also effective for treating chronic pain such as neuralgia. However, they are dangerous in overdose and have largely been replaced by newer drugs.

Today, the most widely prescribed anti-depressants belong to a class known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Very basically, SSRIs work by keeping a larger amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain's receptor areas, allowing the brain to better utilize the serotonin. It is generally believed that serotonin directly influences mood, so by keeping a larger amount of this chemical in a place where the body can use it, patients may experience an improved mood.

The last major group of anti-depressants used today belong to the class of serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). SNRIs work more or less the same way as SSRIs, except that they affect the way the brain uses the neurotransmitter norepinephrine as well as serotonin. SSRIs and SNRIs are generally safer than MAOIs and TCAs, causing fewer side effects and drug interactions.

Some common side effects induced by anti-depressants include dry mouth, drowsiness, changes in appetite and increased feelings of depression and anxiety. However, many of these symptoms decrease after the body adjusts to the drug. Anti-depressants may also cause sexual side effects, such as decreased libido and erectile dysfunction.

Because depression and other affective disorders can be related to situational causes as well as chemical imbalances, anti-depressants are usually combined with psychotherapy in order to combat depression. As with any medication, it is important that patients only take anti-depressants under a doctor's supervision. When combined with therapy, mood-stabilizers have been shown to produce very effective results in depression sufferers.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Sally Foster
By Sally Foster
Based in Istanbul, Turkey, Sarah is a freelance writer who has experience teaching English language courses and running an expat community blog. Since joining the The Health Board team several years ago, Sarah has become a veritable fount of knowledge on many obscure topics. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, where she majored in Romance Languages (Spanish and Italian) and Linguistics, and an M.A. in TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
Discussion Comments
By anon925883 — On Jan 15, 2014

I personally did not react so well to antidepressants. I'd take them, feel happy, then crash hard afterward to the point I'd nearly commit suicide. I hated them, as I thought they were causing me more pain. My boyfriend has the opposite reaction. He became obsessed with them and the good feeling they gave him. He was so reliant on them, but ended up ditching them. I find counseling and talking to trusted friends/family a much better form of treatment. Positive thinking is the key to beating depression.

By oasis11 — On Jan 09, 2011

Cupcake15-I know that Pamelor is used for patients that suffer from depression that also experience chronic pain. Often these patients develop depression because of their medical condition and do not see hope in things getting better which is why the depression sets in.

By cupcake15 — On Jan 06, 2011

Mutsy-I know that people that live with depression really need help in treating the condition because it can seem overwhelming.

I know that anxiety depression is also on the rise and really develops a constant state of panic and fear of the future.

People that experience this form of anxiety can not enjoy the simple pleasures of life and live in the moment. They are constantly worried about the future.

This worry robs them of the potential peace and happiness that so many of us take for granted. It is a form of neurosis that can be treated with anti anxiety medication like Paxil.

Medication like this should never be taken with any alcohol because it changes the chemicals in the compound and cause adverse effects.

Also, cognitive behavioral therapy is often recommended for anxiety disorders because the patient has to learn a new set of behaviors that are more positive that will offset the previous chronically negative thinking.

These patients always consider the worst case scenario when looking at their future which can rob them of ever feeling any real joy.

By mutsy — On Jan 05, 2011

Treatment for depression including anxiety depression is important because it enhances one’s quality of life.

Usually conditions like Bipolar develop because of a chemical imbalance in the brain. A common anti depression medication is Lithium or Norparmin. The dosages may have to be adjusted from time to time for optimal effectiveness.

Fighting depression requires a holistic approach that involves a psychotherapeutic intervention along with the medication. This is a life long condition that often runs in families.

Sally Foster
Sally Foster
Based in Istanbul, Turkey, Sarah is a freelance writer who has experience teaching English language courses and running...
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