What Happens To Your Gut When You Stop Taking Antidepressants

The number of people utilizing antidepressants continues to grow in the U.S. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of adults who reported taking antidepressant medication within the last 30 days increased from 10.6% in 2009-2010 to 13.8% in 2017-2018.

Different types of antidepressants operate differently, but generally speaking, these medications work by altering the functioning of mood-related neurotransmitters in the brain, namely serotonin, norepinephrine, and sometimes dopamine (via Cleveland Clinic). Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are just a few of the many kinds of existing antidepressants. These drugs may be effective in treating symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), amongst other mental health conditions.

Some people take antidepressants for most of their lives, while others may choose to stop using the medication after some time. It's important to work with your doctor to safely taper off antidepressants, as doing so abruptly may produce unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects.

What is antidepressant discontinuation syndrome?

Side effects related to antidepressant cessation have been studied for decades. According to a 1998 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), gastrointestinal distress is among the most common side effects experienced; specifically, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. The researchers noted that such side effects are more often seen in connection with stopping antidepressant use all at once as opposed to gradually reducing one's dosage.

Also known as antidepressant discontinuation syndrome (ADDS), researchers from a 2020 case report published in Cureus outlined the case of a female in her mid-50s who experienced headache, vomiting, and ten to 12 episodes of diarrhea daily after stopping use of an antidepressant she had been taking for 6 months. Symptoms began two days later. The researchers noted that ADDS affects approximately 30% to 50% of patients who suddenly stop taking antidepressants after having been using them for at least 4 to 6 weeks.

The link between antidepressants and our gut

The connection between antidepressants and our intestines is thought to be related to the gut-brain axis, according to 2021 research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. The bulk of our body's serotonin production occurs within the gut, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) — the most common antidepressant prescriptions — impact the neurons in our intestines. Some SSRIs also possess antimicrobial properties, which may affect the balance of bacteria in our gut.

Side effects from sudden discontinuation of antidepressants usually subside within anywhere from one day to a few weeks (via BMJ). However, to reduce the risk of any adverse effects, always talk to your doctor or psychiatrist first, as they can walk you through how to stop taking antidepressants safely. This will involve a gradual tapering off process in which the patient will take progressively lower doses of the drug over the course of four weeks or more, explains the Cleveland Clinic.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.