Have you ever heard of an SSRI? Most likely, probably not, unless you have a mental disorder/illness, in which case, you know exactly what they are.
SSRI is short for Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor and is a category of drug used to treat mental illness, also known as antidepressants. SSRI’s do exactly what they are named for. They block the serotonin from being reabsorbed into the body too quickly. Serotonin is a very important neurotransmitter in the brain that is in control of mood, memory, behavior, and other things. Often times a lack in it and other important neurotransmitters like dopamine attribute to mental illness, which is why SSRI’s get perscribed for those patients. There are many different kinds of SSRI’s, some common ones being Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft, and Paxil. Why have so many variations of the same thing? They are all slightly different versions of the same thing, and react slightly differently in each person. For instance, someone may have issues with Lexapro but feel okay on Prozac, not because Lexapro is bad at its job, but more so that sometimes the slight difference between the drugs can make a large impact on how the body responds to the drug. A doctor will always tell you if you take an antidepressant, that it possibly could make you feel worse. This is not because only a handful of the drugs work, it’s just that in the same way we each have our own unique set of DNA, we also may react differently to the same drug. The diversity is a great thing when you think about it, because since there’s a variety of drugs, many people have the possibility of benefiting from the overall effects of antidepressants. If one doesn’t work, you just try another!!
But what exactly do SSRIs do?
The short answer is they help the serotonin in your body last longer!
The brain communicates via nerve signals produced throughout the body, and does this through neurons and synapses. There are long channels in which neurotransmitters (which are chemicals the body naturally produces like serotonin, dopamine, noroadrenaline, etc.) can pass through to send signals to the brain. In order to communicate the signal, the neurotransmitter needs to get from one neuron to the other. The problem is that between 2 neurons is a gap, called a synapse, which neurotransmitters must cross to reach where they are trying to send the signals to so that it can get to the brain. This is where we get into the serotonin aspect of it all. In a regular person, the neurotransmitter, which is in this case serotonin, is pushed through the transport site, then gets passed into the synapse by the transporter, in which the serotonin binds to the other side and communicates to it’s new neuron the things it wants to tell the brain, like to have a good mood, to sleep well, to feel at peace or less restless, or whatever else that specific neurotransmitter is responsible for. Below is a picture to help you visualize the process I just described:
Serotonin communicates good things to our brains, and everyone has serotonin, but the difference between the mentally healthy and mentally ill is how long that serotonin stays.
In a mentally ill person, the problem is not that there isn’t serotonin in the body, but rather it’s that it is not as prevalent in general. To make things more difficult, the lesser than normal amounts of serotonin that do get through gets reabsorbed too quickly, so the serotonin doesn’t have very much time to do it’s job. In an average person, the serotonin binds to the other side and starts sending it’s signals, but if there’s enough serotonin, the serotonin molecules go back to get reabsorbed into the body. It’s similar to how when someone says, “too many cooks in the kitchen.” These serotonin recognize they are not needed and are reabsorbed, which is a good thing, as the body is regulating itself. For someone who has a mental illness though, the problem is the serotonin, which is already lower in number than normal, gets reabsorbed before it has time to realize that it is actually needed to bind to the receptors on the other side of the synapse. This means less serotonin actually being used and more of it being wasted. Because of this, one can see signs of mood change, loss of appetite, loss of sleep, etc., which overall leads to affect their quality of life and typically makes the victim feel pretty unhappy.
So, what does an SSRI contribute to helping this problem?
Well, thank goodness the story doesn’t just stop there! Thanks to advancements in medicine, SSRIs were developed to combat this problem! SSRIs do exactly what their name says: they keep the serotonin in the synapse so it can have time to bind and send the information it needs. It does this by providing a blockage over the hole where the serotonin goes to be reabsorbed, so that the serotonin does not have a way out and has to stay where it is and sit in the synapse, which leads to the buildup of serotonin which allows it to do its job the way it’s supposed to be done! Eventually, this leads to the body acting the way a mentally healthy person’s brain would (because the serotonin is actually being given the chance to do its job), thus improving the mood, attitude, spirits, sleep cycle, eating habits, etc.! No wonder there’s such a noticeable difference between a mentally ill person on antidepressants vs off of them!
I hope now you understand what an SSRI is, why they are important for those suffering from a mental illness, and what the difference between the mentally healthy and mentally ill is with regards to neurotransmitter function in the brain!