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article imageExclusive: Can Antidepressants Kill Love?

By David Silverberg     Dec 25, 2006 in Technology
Antidepressants pull people out of crippling depression, but do these drugs kill romance? A Digital Journal EXCLUSIVE...
Digital Journal -- The next time the love of your life breaks your heart, don’t drown your sorrows in a bottle of cheap wine. Pop an antidepressant. And then another. Soon enough, the feelings of romantic love will fade away faster than the memories of the first date.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can jeopardize the user’s relationship with a loved one. Examples of SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil. Take the experience of Dr. Jerry Frankel of Plano, Texas: “After two bouts of depression in 10 years, my therapist recommended I stay on serotonin-enhancing antidepressants indefinitely. As appreciative as I was to have regained my health, I found that my usual enthusiasm for life was replaced with blandness. My romantic feelings for my wife declined drastically. With the approval of my therapist, I gradually discontinued my medication. My enthusiasm returned and our romance is now as strong as ever.”
Dr. Frankel’s case is documented in a report published in MIT Press’s Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience by anthropologist Helen Fisher and psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson. They argue that SSRIs can numb users so much they lose interest in sex, passion and keeping a relationship strong. Where’s the warning label that reads, “May cripple love and destroy marital bonds”?
This groundbreaking paper could force depression sufferers to question exactly what their prescribed drugs are doing to their brain chemistry.
Where is the Love?
Antidepressants are successful in pulling people out of crippling depression by improving the efficiency of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sexuality and overall well-being. When serotonin is dangerously low, the mind dips into depression.
But while SSRIs live up to their namesake by boosting serotonin, they also drive down dopamine, a chemical that provides feelings of pleasure. Dopamine flourishes when you eat chocolate or kiss the love of your life, turning romance into more of a neuroscience than a gut instinct.
“When [SSRIs] drive up serotonin, users feel numb and their emotions are blunted,” says Fisher, author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. “Basically, the brain moves away from the chemical system associated with romantic love.”
Thomson, the paper’s co-author, described the effect as if glasses lenses had suddenly been changed — the brain might intellectually register a beautiful woman but the “oomph!” is nowhere to be found.
It seems this diminished capacity to love isn’t hurting sales. The need to medicate depression grows every year — in 2005, more than 25 million antidepressant prescriptions were dispensed by Canadian pharmacies, compared to 18 million in 2001. In the U.S. last year, antidepressant sales exceeded $12.5 billion (US).
Meds Turning Heads
There’s good reason drugs like Prozac and Zoloft are showering neighbourhoods like Skittles rainbows. SSRIs have been proven effective in treating clinical depression, allowing antisocialites to mix and mill at parties. Fisher is quick to point out that many SSRI users need this hit of serotonin to function every day.
“These drugs are very good for some people,” she says, “but it’s not so black and white. People taking SSRIs for 10 years to make them feel calm should be aware they could jeopardize their sex drive and the ability to fall and stay in love.”
The responsibility also lies on pharmaceutical companies who supposedly test every possible side-effect. “The public has to be educated about the drugs they’re taking,” Fisher says. “I look forward to the day when everyone — doctors, patients, companies — finally get it.”
Until then, pop those happy pills with caution. Medicated calm always has its costs.
What You Don't Know Can Hurt You: The Problem With Antidepressant Pills
-- The most publicized risk of taking antidepressants is the possibility of suicide. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently began requiring Big Pharma to include warnings regarding the possibility of suicidal behaviour among children and teens taking antidepressants
-- In the U.S., the number of doctor visits in which antidepressants were prescribed rose from 47 per cent in 1995 to 52 per cent in 2002. According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Joseph Glenmullen, two-thirds of all patients on antidepressants are needlessly on these drugs
-- In a recent University of California study, researchers found that pregnant mothers taking SSRIs increased the risk of a respiratory disorder in the newborn by 600 per cent. SSRIs accumulate in the adult users’ lungs and the serotonin boost can affect various muscle cells, which can then be passed down to a developing fetus
-- People popping antidepressants and migraine meds called triptans could face a life-threatening condition. Symptoms of this harmful combo include restlessness, loss of coordination, overactive reflexes, nausea and rapid heart rates