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What are the Pros and Cons of Taking MAOIs?

By S. Closser
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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For some people suffering from depression, MAOIs, or monoamine oxidase inhibitors, provide significant relief from their symptoms. Though most people are now prescribed more sophisticated antidepressants that are considered safer and have fewer side effects, there are those patients who find MAOIs to be the most effective treatment. Unfortunately, MAOIs can also interact dangerously with other drugs, as well as causing drowsiness, digestive problems, sun sensitivity, and other problems.

MAOIs work by affecting the balance of naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The medication targets a brain enzyme called monoamine oxidase, which works to remove norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine from the brain. MAOIs inhibit this process, making these chemicals more available for brain cell communication. For people who are lacking in these brain chemicals, the medication helps stabilize their mood and alleviate feelings of depression. Most antidepressants often take two to four weeks to fully take effect, though some people may respond in a much shorter period of time.

Other neurotransmitters in the brain and digestive system are also affected by MAOIs, which can result in a number of different side effects. Patients taking these medications can experience drowsiness, dizziness, and blurred vision. Users should be cautious when performing tasks that require alertness, such as driving, especially when first taking this medication.

MAOI medications can also cause other side effects, including diarrhea and upset stomach, increased sun sensitivity, tremors, and irritability. Sleeplessness, erectile dysfunction, weight gain, and flushing can also occur. These side effects usually subside as the user's body adjusts to the medication. MAOIs are often the last line of defense against the symptoms of depression because of these side effects and the possibility of dangerous drug and food reactions.

Patients taking MAOIs should be aware that they can cause dangerous drug reactions, even with over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements. Users will need to implement diet restrictions to eliminate the possibilities of food and drink reactions, particularly with foods containing the compound tyramine. Common foods high in tyramine include aged cheeses, soy sauce, sauerkraut, draft beer, and some wines.

Some antidepressants can be harmful to an unborn or breast-fed child. It's important for any woman taking MAOIs to talk her doctor to make sure the medication is safe to take during pregnancy. When patients want to stop taking MAOIs, it is recommended they follow a plan to gradually decrease the dosage to avoid side effects associated with withdrawal.

Despite the laundry list of negative side effects of antidepressants, these drugs can be life changing for people who respond well to the medication. Once they find what works for them, most people can achieve significant recovery from depression. Unfortunately, it's difficult to know which drugs, and in what combination, will be most effective at alleviating the symptoms of depression.

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.
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