10/14/2013 07:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

No Quick Fix to Fighting Depression Comes Without Long-Term Side Effects

In today's fast-paced multitasking world, too many look to the quick fix. Antidepressant drugs, originally prescribed for severe depression, are being handed out like candy for any number of reasons. These days there is no longer a stigma attached to antidepressants. Taking them is often viewed as a way to get more out of life, even touted as part of a modern health regime. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

As with all drugs, taking antidepressants can produce a variety of side effects such as headache, dizziness, nausea, anxiety, weight gain and loss of sexual desire. In fact, all antidepressant drugs are now required by the FDA to carry a warning that they may produce worsening depression and an increased risk of suicide. Often the side effects are glossed over or downplayed, leaving the patient with a rosy picture of their new life on antidepressants. One must do the research to weigh the benefits against the risks.

When I first started my practice back in 1981 it was not very common for patients to have been prescribed an antidepressant and even less common for those who had been to admit it. Now, it's more common for patients to ask for help getting off the drugs because they can't tolerate the side effects. They are no longer willing to accept instant relief at the cost of long-term health consequences.

Many of the symptoms that patients complain about are the side effects caused by the drug that they were incorrectly prescribed in the first place. I want to stress the need that patients must ask questions and be educated. As I mentioned, you cannot "trust" that someone will catch a problem or dangerous drug interaction, you have to on the lookout for it. Even if your doctor does explain all the pros and cons when prescribing antidepressants, each individual reacts differently. It is our job to get to know our own bodies and to listen to what they are telling us.

A patient I recently consulted was taking several different prescription drugs -- not unusual, unfortunately. Three of the 10 were antidepressants. I ran the list through a drug interactions database, as I do in all cases of multiple prescriptions. Two of the three antidepressants were red-flagged as having potentially life-threatening interactions with each other or one of the other medications the patient was taking. The third antidepressant was only yellow-flagged. All three of the antidepressants had been prescribed by the same doctor and all three filled at the same pharmacy. That's two places where these interactions should have been caught, yet no one warned this patient about the threat to her health. At the time of the consultation she was experiencing symptoms of these interactions. Discontinuing one of the drugs stopped the most severe of the symptoms almost immediately, discontinuing a second stopped the rest.

In addition, many doctors are misdiagnosing patients, often confusing the stress and anxiety of a busy life for depression.

Pharmaceutical companies court doctors, offering special incentives when their brand is suggested, which has further added to the abuse of the practice of over-prescribing antidepressants.

Changing one's lifestyle may be enough to swing the pendulum to the lighter side of a melancholy view of life. Here are some options to explore:

Make healthy lifestyle changes.
Lifestyle changes are not always easy to make, but they can have a big impact on depression. Self-help strategies that can be very effective include:

Eat a healthy diet. Don't skip meals. When possible, make meal time a social time. Avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates (think white -- white bread, white rice, etc.) and concentrate on complex carbohydrates (whole grains, beans, legumes) and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Exercise. It's amazing how a little exercise can improve your mood. Start slowly if you haven't exercised in a while and gradually increase. Even a 10-minute walk will help. The key is consistency -- do some form of exercise every day.

Challenge negative thought patterns. When you catch yourself thinking negatively, whether it's about yourself or another, write it down. Then write down a positive replacement. Just telling yourself not to be so negative won't do it. You need to see the positive side in order to change the negative.

Get an adequate amount of sleep. Whether you're sleeping too little or too much, your mood suffers. Get on a better sleep schedule by learning healthy sleep habits.

Expose yourself to a little sunlight every day. Lack of sunlight can make depression worse. Make sure you're getting enough. Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside, enjoy an al fresco meal, people-watch on a park bench, or sit out in the garden.

Practice relaxation techniques. A daily relaxation practice can help relieve symptoms of depression, reduce stress, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation.

Fight depression by managing stress. Not only does stress prolong and worsen depression, but it can also trigger it. In order to get over depression and stay well, it's essential to learn how to minimize and cope with stress.

Alternative natural solutions to antidepressant drugs can offer greater benefit without the danger of side effects. There are many wholistic practitioners, as well as natural products, that can offer help, and hope, in ways that promote health and a sense of well-being.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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