What Women Should Know About Antidepressants

Danielle J. Johnson, MDDanielle Johnson, MD, FAPA
Lindner Center of HOPE/UC Health Psychiatrist
Lindner Center of HOPE Women’s Mental Health Program Director
University of Cincinnati College of Medicine Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychiatry

 

Psychiatric medications are prescribed to treat the symptoms of mental health disorders. They can stabilize symptoms and prevent relapse. They work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain. Serotonin is involved in mood, appetite, sensory perception, and pain pathways. Norepinephrine is part of the fight-or-flight response and regulates blood pressure and calmness. Dopamine produces feelings of pleasure when released by the brain reward system.

One in ten Americans takes an antidepressant, including almost one in four women in their 40s and 50s. Women are twice as likely to develop depression as men.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase levels of serotonin. Fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), fluvoxamine (Luvox), citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro) treat depression, anxiety disorders, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, eating disorders, and hot flashes. Potential side effects include jitteriness, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, sedation, headaches, weight gain, and sexual dysfunction.

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. Venlafaxine (Effexor), duloxetine (Cymbalta), and desvenlafaxine (Pristiq) are used to treat depression, anxiety disorders, diabetic neuropathy, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia. Potential side effects include nausea, dry mouth, sweating, headache, decreased appetite, insomnia, increased blood pressure, and sexual dysfunction.

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) also increase serotonin and norepinephrine. Amitriptyline (Elavil), clomipramine (Anafranil), desipramine (Norpramin), nortriptyline (Pamelor), doxepin (Sinequan), trimipramine (Surmontil), protriptyline (Vivactil), and imipramine (Tofranil) are used to treat depression, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and insomnia. Possible side effects include sedation, forgetfulness, dry mouth, dry skin, constipation, blurred vision, difficulty urinating, dizziness, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, increased seizure risk, and cardiac complications.

Bupropion (Wellbutrin) increases levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. It treats depression, seasonal affective disorder, ADHD, and can be used for smoking cessation. It can also augment other antidepressants. Potential side effects include anxiety, dry mouth, insomnia, and tremor. It can lower the seizure threshold. There are minimal to no sexual side effects or weight gain.

Trazodone (Desyrel, Oleptro) affects serotonin and mirtazapine (Remeron) affects serotonin and norepinephrine. They are both used for depression and sleep. Mirtazapine has minimal sexual side effects.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) increase serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Isocarboxazid (Marplan), phenelzine (Nardil), selegiline (Emsam), tranylcypromine (Parnate), and moclobemide are associated with more serious side effects than other antidepressants. There are dietary restrictions and numerous drug interactions. MAOIs are often used after other antidepressant classes have been tried. Other antidepressants need to be discontinued for a period of time prior to starting an MAOI.

Newer antidepressants include Viibryd (vilazodone) which affects serotonin, Fetzima (levomilnacipran) which affects serotonin and norepinephrine, and Brintellix (vortioxetine) which affects serotonin. Brintellix and Viibryd have mechanisms of action that make them unique from SSRIs. Viibryd is less likely to cause sexual side effects.

Excess serotonin can accumulate when antidepressants are used with other medications that effect serotonin (other antidepressants, triptans for migraines, certain muscle relaxers, certain pain medications, certain antinausea medications, dextromethorphan, St. John’s Wort, tryptophan, stimulants, LSD, cocaine, ecstasy, etc.) Symptoms of serotonin syndrome include anxiety, agitation, restlessness, easy startling, delirium, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased temperature, profuse sweating, shivering, vomiting, diarrhea, tremor, and muscle rigidity or twitching. Life threatening symptoms include high fever, seizures, irregular heartbeat, and unconsciousness.

Varying estrogen levels during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, postpartum, perimenopause, and menopause raise issues with antidepressants and depression that are unique to women. Estrogen increases serotonin, so a decrease in estrogen at certain times in a woman’s reproductive life cycle can reduce serotonin levels and lead to symptoms of depression. Hormonal contraception and hormone replacement therapy can reduce or increase depressive symptoms; an increase in symptoms may be more likely in women who already had major depressive disorder. During pregnancy, antidepressants have a potential risk to the developing baby but there are also risks of untreated depression on the baby’s development. With breastfeeding, some antidepressants pass minimally into breast milk and may not affect the baby. The benefits of breastfeeding may outweigh the risks of taking these medications.   Antidepressant sexual side effects in women are vaginal dryness, decreased genital sensations, decreased libido, and difficulty achieving orgasm. Women should communicate with their psychiatrist and/or OB/GYN to discuss the risks and benefits of medication use vs. untreated illness during pregnancy and breastfeeding; the use of hormonal treatments to regulate symptoms associated with menses and menopause; and the treatment of sexual dysfunction caused by antidepressants.