Antidepressant acronyms decoded

For many people with depression, medication is an important part of treatment, but not all antidepressants are alike. They work in different ways, and they’re categorized by the different brain chemicals that they affect. The good news is that if you’re going to try antidepressants for your depression, you’ll have a few that you can choose from.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Serotonin is an important mood-regulating chemical, and low levels of the chemical have been linked to depression. This is why the first type of antidepressant prescribed for depression is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which increases serotonin levels in the brain.

Normally, serotonin is released by nerve cells in the brain, used, and reabsorbed back into the same cells. SSRIs work by blocking this reabsorption (reuptake) of serotonin into nerve cells. When less serotonin is reabsorbed, more is leftover in the brain. The more common SSRIs include:

  • Citalopram (Celexa)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

Possible side effects of SSRIs are dry mouth, sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal problems, and insomnia.

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)

Some people don’t react well to SSRIs, or they have circumstances that require them to try different types of medication. In these cases, they might be prescribed a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI).

SNRIs work like SSRIs in that they prevent the reuptake of certain chemicals, except that they affect serotonin and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that helps the body become more alert and responsive and low norepinephrine levels have been linked to depression. Common SNRIs include the following:

  • Venlafazine (Effexor)
  • Desvenlafazine (Pristiq)
  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta)

Possible side effects of SNRIs include nausea in the first two weeks, low appetite, anxiety, headache, insomnia, constipation, and sexual problems.

Norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs):

NDRIs are less commonly prescribed than SSRIs and SNRIs, but they’re still a good choice for many people. NDRIs work by increasing the amount of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps with things like memory, attention, cognitive function, mood, desire, pleasure, and sleep. Low dopamine levels have been linked to depression. The most common NDRI is Bupropion (Wellbutrin, Aplenzin, Forfivo XL).

Side effects sometimes caused by NDRIs include anxiety, nausea, loss of appetite, and headache. But NDRIs typically have fewer side effects than SSRIs and SNRIs, and are a good alternative for people who experience sexual problems or other certain side effects on other types of antidepressants.

Atypical antidepressants

Atypical antidepressants all work in different ways, but generally, they affect the amounts of various neurotransmitters in the brain. Some also improve neural receptors, which helps the brain use neurotransmitters more effectively. Most of these types of antidepressants carry a risk of side effects including nausea, dry mouth, and dizziness. Some of the more common types of atypical antidepressants include:

  • Mirtazapine (Remeron)
  • Nefazodone
  • Trazodone (Oleptro)
  • Vortioxetine (Trintellix)
  • Vilazodone (Vibryd)

Tricyclic antidepressants

These medications increase the levels of two hormones (serotonin and norepinephrine), while blocking a third neurotransmitter (acetylcholine). They’re a slightly older form of antidepressants, and they tend to cause more side effects than do other drugs for depression.  These side effects can make this type of antidepressant dangerous for people with certain health problems, and because of the possibility of dangerous side effects, you probably wouldn’t be prescribed them if you were an older patient or if you had glaucoma, heart rhythm problems, or if you were a male with an enlarged prostate. More common tricyclic antidepressants include:

  • Imipramine (Tofranil)
  • Nortriptyline (Pamelor)
  • Amitriptyline, doxepin, trimipramine (Surmontil, Elavil)
  • Desipramine (Norpramin)
  • Protriptyline (Vivactil)

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

This type of antidepressant works by preventing the body from breaking down certain chemicals, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. This leads to higher levels of all three in the brain. However, this can cause side effects like weakness, dizziness, and trembling, and people can have a dangerous reaction if they eat certain foods or medications while taking MAOIs. People taking these drugs have to follow a strict diet, as well as avoid any medications that raise serotonin levels, because this could lead to a life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome. Some MAOIs include:

  • Tranylcypromine (Parnate)
  • Phenelzine (Nardil)
  • Isocarboxazid (Marplan)

Which one is right for you?

When it comes to this kind of medication, what works for one person might have a negative effect (or no effect) on someone else. To best treat your depression, you’re going to need to trust your healthcare provider, keep an open mind, and be willing to have honest conversations about how you’re feeling. If you try an antidepressant and your symptoms aren’t controlled, don’t be afraid to say something to your provider. They will work with you to help you find a form of treatment that works better for you. Also, because these medications do come with possible side effects, be vigilant about making and showing up to follow-up appointments. That way, if you experience any side effects, you can address them right away.

Read more
  • Chantal Moret and Mike Briley. “The importance of norepinephrine in depression.” Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 7(Suppl 1): 9–13. Web. May 31 2011.
  • Kristeen Cherney. “Depression Medications List.” Healthline. Healthline Media, Jun 23 2016. Web.
  • “Depression: Types of Antidepressants.” FamilyDoctor. American Academy of Family Physicians, Sep 2012. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Antidepressants: Selecting one that’s right for you.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Nov 25 2014. Web.
  • “Using Antidepressants to Treat Depression: Comparing Effectiveness, Safety, and Price.” ConsumerHealthChoices. Consumers Union of U.S., Inc., Sep 2013. Web.
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