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Depression: You Can Have a Relapse (Just like an Addict)

Alcoholics and drug addicts are familiar with the problem of relapse--in fact, it's a regular part of many of their lives until they finally get "clean." Now researchers say that patients who use anti-depressants are much more likely to suffer relapses of major depression than those who use no medication at all.

Evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews says that patients who have used anti-depressant medications can be nearly twice as susceptible to future episodes of major depression. His research reveals that that people who have not been taking any medication are at a 25% risk of relapse, compared to 42% or higher for those who have taken and gone off an anti-depressant. Andrews and his colleagues analyzed research on subjects who started on medications and were switched to placebos, subjects who were administered placebos throughout their treatment, and subjects who continued to take medication throughout their course of treatment. 

He says anti-depressants interfere with the brain’s natural self-regulation of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, and that the brain can overcorrect once medication is suspended, triggering new depression. Though there are several forms of anti-depressants, all of them disturb the brain's natural regulatory mechanisms, which he compares to putting a weight on a spring. The brain, like the spring, pushes back against the weight. Going off antidepressant drugs is like removing the weight from the spring, leaving the person at increased risk of depression when the brain, like the compressed spring, shoots out before retracting to its resting state.

Andrews says, "We found that the more these drugs affect serotonin and other neurotransmitters in your brain--and that’s what they’re supposed to do--the greater your risk of relapse once you stop taking them. All these drugs do reduce symptoms, probably to some degree, in the short-term. The trick is what happens in the long term. Our results suggest that when you try to go off the drugs, depression will bounce back. This can leave people stuck in a cycle where they need to keep taking anti-depressants to prevent a return of symptoms.”

Andrews believes depression may actually be a natural and beneficial--though painful--state in which the brain is working to cope with stress. "There's a lot of debate about whether or not depression is truly a disorder, as most clinicians and the majority of the psychiatric establishment believe, or whether it's an evolved adaptation that does something useful."

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