Most antidepressant medications work by blocking the "reuptake" of the neurotransmitters that are chronically deficient in the depressed brain. This serves to conserve the low number of these substances so that they can be used again to ignite more brain cell transmissions than they could before.
Unfortunately, these neurotransmitters that get conserved are then lost after a period of time, making the problem even worse. This is why most antidepressants work for a while, then tend to stop working.
There is a solution. The body's low amount of neurotransmitters is simply a lack of their building blocks- specific amino acids. If these amino acids are replaced in a specific ratio, then the body is able to make all the neurotransmitters it needs, thus fixing the problem.
Broadly speaking, all antidepressants fall into the following classes: monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), tricyclics (TCAs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). There are also several newer medications that are unique in their mechanism of action.
The monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) were some of the first antidepressant medications developed. The neurotransmitters responsible for mood, primarily norepinephrine and serotonin, are also known as monoamines. Monoamine oxidase is an enzyme which breaks these substances down. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, as the name implies, inhibits this enzyme, thus allowing a greater supply of these chemicals to remain available.
Tricyclics, also known as heterocyclics, came into broad use in the 1950's. These drugs inhibit the nerve cell's ability to reuptake serotonin and norepinephrine, thus allowing a greater amount of these two substances to be available for use by nerve cells.
SSRI stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. These medications work, as the name implies, by blocking the presynaptic serotonin transporter receptor. This drug differs from the tricyclics in that it's action is specific to serotonin only. It's effect on norepinephrine is indirect, through the fact that falling serotonin "permits" norepinephrine to fall so preserving serotonin preserves norepinephrine.
Five newer medications which do not fit into the above categories are: buproprion (Wellbutrin), nefazodone (Serzone), trazodone (Desyrel), venlafaxine (Effexor), and mirtazapine (Remeron).
There is much information out on the internet that will give you more detailed or simplified information. It might be helpful to take the medication that you are interested and do a Google search. All medications work differently with each person including dosage and time taken. Each person, should be treated for their own set of symptoms and it often is trial and error to get it right. Mine took almost three years, but it was worth it. Make sure that you are checked for side effects via blood draws.
Clueless C gave an great link with a lot of information. You should know that most docs now start with a low dose SSRI, then carefully monitor the patient for improvement and the need to adjust the meds. Before trying Rx drugs, it's important to make some lifestyle changes that may solve the problem.
Reduce or eliminate alcohol, caffeine and processed, sugary food consumption.
Keep a regular routine: Go to bed and get up at about the same time every day. Eat regularly, preferably 4-6 times a day.
Exercise at least 30 minutes daily. This can be as easy as a brisk walk.
Spend at least an hour a day in the sunshine.
If you try all these and still feel depressed, it's time to see a doctor.
I'd just like to add here too too all the excellent advice that you've received so far.
The idea that lack of serotonin causes depression is only one model of understanding depression. Another model is that the thiking styles - over-thinking, constant worrying and analysing - gradually leads to a build-up of anxiety that causes disturbed sleep and over-dreaming. Lack of deep refreshing sleep can eventually lead to waking feeling exhausted with lowered levels of serotonin. Lowered levels of serotonin over time leads to lack of motivation, fewere pleasant experiences, etc... which leads to more worry and anxiety.
The great news is that you can break this cycle by using daily self-hypnosis to calm your mind and body down and learning how to address the thinking styles that produce anxiety.
In this model, lowered serotonin is only a symptom of the over-thinking and lack of deep sleep that leads to depression. It is not its cause.
Whether or not you're taking SSRI anti-depressants, I would strongly advise you to experiment with a daily self-hypnosis audio programme (such as my Let Go Of Stress download) as a powerful step in letting go of anxiety and worry. This combined with other lifestyle changes such as Kate advises can really help you to feel much better.
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