The use of antidepressants in the United States has skyrocketed over the last two decades. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, adult use of antidepressants almost tripled between 1988-1994, and according to a study conducted by Dr. Mark Olfson of Columbia University and Steven Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania, use doubled between 1996 and 2005--and the number keeps growing. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antidepressants are the country's most commonly prescribed medication.

Antidepressants are prescription drugs used to treat depression and a variety of other psychological conditions such as anxiety, panic, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They help correct chemical imbalances in your brain by affecting certain neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitters commonly associated with depression are serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

There are basically three major types of antidepressants. Each type differs in terms of which neurotransmitters are affected and the process involved.

3 Main Categories of Antidepressants

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) increase serotonin levels and include the most commonly prescribed antidepressants--Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil and Celexa.

Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCA) increase serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine and include brands such as Elavil and Nortriptyline. Because of more adverse side effects, theses are prescribed less often than SSRIs.

Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOI) increase serotonin and norepinephrine and include brands such as Nardil and Marplan. These are prescribed less often than SSRIs and TCAs because of potentially dangerous and severe side effects. They are often used to treat depression that has not responded to other depression medications and are a last resort.

While antidepressants have worked for many people to lift them out of despair, antidepressants aren't necessarily right for everyone. Some patients report that the side effects actually make things worse for them.

Other patients have reported side effects varying from stomach upset, loss of appetite, diarrhea, constipation, loss of sexual function and desire, sleep problems, drowsiness, anxiety, dry mouth and headaches. Since each antidepressant has its own particular side effects, it is important to ask your doctor about these and how long they may last.

Dr. Joanne Chao, a psychologist living in California, says: "It often takes several tries to find the right antidepressant." She says that a doctor will select the most appropriate antidepressant based on your symptoms, the antidepressant's potential side effects, your medical conditions and any medications you're taking.

Others, like Jerome Wakefield, a professor of social work at New York University and coauthor of The Loss of Sadness, argue that SSRIs are commonly overused to treat normal sadness. He contends that sadness is a normal and healthy response to certain life events such as divorce, sudden unemployment, a house foreclosure or an ending of a friendship--and taking antidepressants may not be the right course of action.

If you feel depressed but are concerned about choosing antidepressants as your method of treatment, there are some other options you can try first.

Strategies to Lift Your Mood

Try some of the strategies below and see how they affect your mood.

Get regular exercise. For some people, exercise works as well or even better than antidepressants. Exercise increases serotonin levels and releases endorphins (otherwise known as the body's natural "feel-good" chemicals).

Create a strong social network. People who are depressed often isolate themselves. Instead, call a friend to go for a walk, sign up for a class or join a volunteer group. Do something to be with people. Being involved with others can relieve loneliness, take you outside of your own problems and in effect lift your mood.

Cut back on caffeine. Cutting back on soda, coffee, tea, and chocolate can make a big difference in your mood. Anxiety is a common symptom of depression. Too much caffeine can make you nervous, jittery, or anxious--and also make it hard to sleep at night - adding to depression.

Start a series of yoga classes. Stress and anxiety can increase your depression symptoms and make it harder to recover. Learning to relax your mind and body through yoga can give you a feeling of peace and help improve your mood.

Get adequate sleep. Too little sleep can have a considerable influence on your mood. Make the quality and quantity of your sleep a priority. Set a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Research suggests that most adults need between seven and nine hours each night.

If you have been battling depression symptoms and find that these strategies are not helping you, call your doctor for an appointment. If you are considering taking antidepressants, be sure your doctor knows about any other health conditions you have and any medicines you take regularly including vitamins or herbal supplements. This information can affect which antidepressant your doctor will prescribe for you. Since depression carries the risk of suicide -- if you are considering suicide -- contact your doctor or other health professional immediately.


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