What You Should Know About Your AntidepressantsReviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 02, 2021

How Antidepressants Work

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Most depression drugs work by changing the balance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which affect your mood. They include serotonin, noradrenaline, and norepinephrine. Your primary care doctor can prescribe antidepressants. But if your symptoms are severe, they’ll refer you to a psychiatrist. That’s a doctor who specializes in mental health. Medication can help with depression symptoms, but it doesn’t always treat the causes of your depression.

What Do All Those Letters Mean?

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Different classes of antidepressants work on different brain chemicals. Tricyclics (TCAs) and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) raise serotonin and norepinephrine levels in your brain. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) raise serotonin. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) stop monoamine neurotransmitters from breaking down.

Realistic Expectations

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In general, antidepressants work really well, especially when used along with psychotherapy. This combination may give you better results than using either treatment alone. Most people on antidepressants say they have eventual improvements in symptoms such as sadness, loss of interest, and hopelessness. But these drugs don’t work right away. It may take 1 to 3 weeks or more before you start to feel better, and even longer before you feel the full benefit.

Brand Name vs. Generic

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The FDA says the generic drugs it approves are as effective as the brand-name versions. Both types have the same active ingredient. Ask your doctor if you can take the generic form of a drug. It may cost less than the brand-name version.

Antidepressant Pitfalls

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You may be tempted to quit taking your medicine even though it’s working well. Or you might think about stopping because the dosing schedule is inconvenient, or because there are unpleasant side effects. Also, some people with depression don’t improve with antidepressants and must explore other treatment options.


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