Researchers who reviewed existing research, looking for evidence to support the unproven theory that low levels of the brain chemical serotonin cause depression, have concluded the theory appears to be wrong.
According to the researchers’ paper, posted by the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, the best available evidence appears to show that there is more serotonin in depressed individuals, not less.
If so, the psychiatric treatment of prescribing serotonin-boosting antidepressant drugs for depression may actually make it harder for depressed individuals to recover, according to lead author Paul Andrews, an assistant professor of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University.
“It’s time we rethink what we are doing,” Andrews says. “We are taking people who are suffering from the most common forms of depression, and instead of helping them, it appears we are putting an obstacle in their path to recovery.”
Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist, has argued in previous research that antidepressants leave patients in worse shape after they stop using them, and that most forms of depression, though painful, are natural and beneficial adaptations to stress.
A team of researchers reviewing previous studies into the effects of antidepressants have concluded that the drugs are doing patients more harm than good, according to a research paper published yesterday in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology.
“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,” says professor Paul Andrews, an evolutionary biologist at McMaster University in Canada and lead author of the study. “Most of this evidence has been out there for years and nobody has been looking at this basic issue.”
Most antidepressants alter the level of serotonin naturally produced by the human body in an attempt to alter mood. But serotonin also regulates other important functions in the body, including digestion, reproduction, and the blood clotting to seal a wound.
“Serotonin is an ancient chemical,” said Andrews. “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.”
Quoting from his research team’s paper:
“Because serotonin regulates many adaptive processes, antidepressants could have many adverse health effects…. Antidepressants can…cause developmental problems, they have adverse effects on sexual and romantic life, and they increase the risk of hyponatremia (low sodium in the blood plasma), bleeding, stroke, and death in the elderly. Our review supports the conclusion that antidepressants generally do more harm than good by disrupting a number of adaptive processes regulated by serotonin.”
Following on the heels of other research on both the ineffectiveness and the risks of adverse effects of antidepressants, this latest research raises serious questions about whether physicians can ethically prescribe antidepressants for their patients. After all, a cornerstone of medical ethics is that it may be better to do nothing than to risk causing more harm than good. Antidepressants now have been shown in a growing number of research studies to cause proven harm, while providing questionable benefit.
Professor Andrews believes his research shows the critical necessity of reevaluating the use of antidepressants.
“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?”
WARNING: Anyone wishing to discontinue antidepressants or other psychiatric drugs is cautioned to do so only under the supervision of a competent medical doctor because of potentially dangerous, even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
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