How Antidepressants Work

The usual treatment for depression is a two-part program that includes some form of talk therapy (which can be extremely helpful to patients) as well as the use of antidepressants. Antidepressants work by normalizing naturally occurring brain chemicals (particularly the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine). Scientists understand that these chemicals are in some way responsible for regulating mood, but they are still unsure of the exact mechanism that makes this work.

This fact bears repeating: antidepressants were developed to alter chemicals in the brain; yet, researchers are still unclear as to the mechanism of these chemicals, or why and how antidepressant drugs work. Even worse, the long-term effects of the most popular classes of antidepressants are unknown.

There are several classes of antidepressants; the newest and most widely used of these are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), which include Prozac and Paxil. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) such as Effexor are also regularly prescribed.

The most common side effects of these drugs are headache, nausea, insomnia, agitation, and sexual problems. Even worse, the Food and Drug Administration has required that patients taking antidepressants must be warned of an increased tendency toward suicidal thoughts and behaviors, particularly in children and adolescents.