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Weighing the Real Risks of Antidepressants

Weighing the Real Risks of AntidepressantsA new Canadian research paper suggests use of commonly prescribed antidepressants may do more harm than good.

Investigators believe knowledge of the negative effects of the medications may reduce their use.

“We need to be much more cautious about the widespread use of these drugs,” says Dr. Paul Andrews, an evolutionary biologist at McMaster University and lead author of the article.

“It’s important because millions of people are prescribed antidepressants each year, and the conventional wisdom about these drugs is that they’re safe and effective.”

Andrews and his colleagues reviewed previous patient studies into the effects of antidepressants and determined that the benefits of most antidepressants, even taken at their best, compare poorly to the risks, which include premature death in elderly patients.

Most contemporary antidepressants are a class of compounds called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, where it regulates mood.

The vast majority of serotonin that the body produces, though, is used for other purposes, including digestion, forming blood clots at wound sites, reproduction and development.

In the current study, researchers discovered that anti-depressants have negative health effects on all processes normally regulated by serotonin.

The findings include these elevated risks:

  • developmental problems in infants;
  • problems with sexual stimulation and function and sperm development in adults;
  • digestive problems such as diarrhea, constipation, indigestion and bloating;
  • abnormal bleeding and stroke in the elderly.

A literature review of three studies showed that elderly antidepressant users are more likely to die than non-users, even after taking other important variables into account.

Researchers believe that this higher death rate indicates that the overall effect of these drugs on the body is more harmful than beneficial.

“Serotonin is an ancient chemical. It’s intimately regulating many different processes, and when you interfere with these things you can expect, from an evolutionary perspective, that it’s going to cause some harm,” Andrews said.

Although millions of people are prescribed antidepressants every year, Andrews said much of the evidence has long been apparent and available.

“The thing that’s been missing in the debates about antidepressants is an overall assessment of all these negative effects relative to their potential beneficial effects,” he said. “Most of this evidence has been out there for years and nobody has been looking at this basic issue.”

In previous research, Andrews and his colleagues had questioned the effectiveness of antidepressants even for their prescribed function, finding that patients were more likely to suffer relapse after going off their medications as their brains worked to re-establish equilibrium.

With even the intended function of antidepressants in question, Andrews said it is important to look critically at their continuing use.

“It could change the way we think about such major pharmaceutical drugs,” he says. “You’ve got a minimal benefit, a laundry list of negative effects – some small, some rare and some not so rare.

“The issue is: does the list of negative effects outweigh the minimal benefit?”

The study is published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Source: McMaster University

Doctor handing out medication photo by shutterstock.

Weighing the Real Risks of Antidepressants

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Weighing the Real Risks of Antidepressants. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 25 Apr 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.