Taking medication for a mental health issue? You’re not alone—more than 80 million Americans have prescriptions for everything from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Luckily, they can be super-effective: A recent study found that the most common antidepressant medications—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Paxil—relieve symptoms 91% of the time.
Those are pretty good odds, but those medications aren’t perfect. While they ease your illness, they often come with side effects—including drowsiness, insomnia, weight gain, and loss of libido—that can make you wonder if you should chuck your pills in the trash.
The simple answer: don’t. “These drugs can be life-saving,” says Nathaniel Rickles, PharmD., PhD., a pharmacist and associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy. “For people with behavioral health problems, there’s a much greater chance for recovery if you take them. If you have side effects, be patient—sometimes they’ll go away on their own with a little time.” You may just need to figure out ways to manage or diminish possible side effects—while allowing your meds to do what they were designed to do: help you live a better life.
5 Tips to Diminish Side Effects
1. Consider genetic testing
A genetic test could help your doctor narrow down—from dozens of possibilities—the treatments that might be more likely to suit you.
“We know that certain drugs are broken down—metabolized—in the body through certain pathways,” explains Dr. Rickles. The speed with which we meatabolize drugs can vary from person to person. “If you’re a fast metabolizer, for example, a drug might not be in your bloodstream long enough to be effective. And if you’re a slow metabolizer, you could be at a greater risk for side effects. That’s where technology comes in—genetic testing can be really effective.”
LEARN MORE: What Everyone Needs to Know About Drug Metabolism
Talk to your doctor about a test like the Genomind Professional PGx Express, which can determine the effect that your particular set of genes (your Rx MetaTypeTM) has on a drug via metabolism and, as a result, inform dosing decisions. Such tests can help inform drug selection, too.
2. Check your medicine cabinet.
Is it crammed with jars of vitamins and supplements? Just because they’re all natural—and your cousin’s best friend swears by them—doesn’t mean they’re OK to take with your mental health prescriptions. “Supplements are a form of self-medication,” says Dr. Rickles. “The popular herb St. John’s Wort, for example, targets the serotonin system—your body’s feel-good chemical messengers. But if you’re taking an antidepressant that also targets serotonin, you could end up with a potentially life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome.” Symptoms to look out for include fever, agitation, muscle contractions, and diarrhea.
Other mood supplements that may not play well with mental health meds are melatonin and valerian, which people take to help them sleep.
And beware of cold and flu medications that contain pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine, and stay away from energy drinks. The bottom line, says Mark McCurdy, RP, owner of Mark’s Pharmacy in Cambridge, Nebraska, is “Talk to your doctor and your pharmacist—these are things we definitely need to know about.”
3. Focus on food.
After all, you are what you eat. If you’re jittery from too much caffeine, for instance, you could experience an interaction with your medication. Some examples: With some older antidepressants known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), it’s important to avoid aged meats and cheeses. With lithium, a mood stabilizer used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, it’s critical to maintain (or keep stable) your intake of salt. And for most mental health drugs, advises Dr. Rickles, it’s a good idea to stay away from alcohol as much as possible.
Plus, since stomach issues can often be among the side effects, it’s a good idea to take your meds with a light meal to help avoid nausea. See what works best for you, and check the consumer information that may be included with your prescription.
4. Pay attention to timing.
When it comes to mental health medications, timing isn’t always everything—but it can sometimes play a role. “Many of these drugs have potentially sedating effects,” says Dr. Rickles. So if you find that your meds are making you drowsy, try taking them at bedtime.
On the other hand, if your meds make you feel charged up, it’s probably best to take them in the morning—that way, you can put their energizing effects to work for you throughout the day. Talk to your pharmacist about when might be the best time to take your medicines. Depending on how you react, you may need to experiment with timing and see what works best for you.
5. Communicate with your health care providers.
For lots of people, unpleasant side effects come with the territory. Try to soldier on: They tend to disappear soon. “Be patient,” advises Dr. Rickles. “Antidepressants can take four to six weeks until they kick in and the side effects go away. Often, if you know what to expect, you can just ride it out.”
But pay attention to your symptoms, says McCurdy, including monitoring your weight and blood pressure, as they can increase. “We try to avoid issues with side effects as much as possible, but sometimes they happen. If they’re affecting your daily activities—if you’re falling asleep at your desk or feeling woozy all day—we want to know about it.”
Speak with your doctor or pharmacist, who can offer strategies to help, from adjusting the dose to changing the medication to adding a supplementary drug that addresses the side effects.
Despite the side effects that you are experiencing, there’s one thing you should never do: Stop taking your meds on your own. “Don’t abruptly quit your medication without consulting your doctor or pharmacist,” says McCurdy. “Some of these drugs can cause severe withdrawal symptoms. So if you’re having issues, reach out and get some professional help. Talk to the pros.”