Seeking help for depression -- and following through with antidepressant medication -- is a courageous and important first step on the road to recovery. But too often, those who take that step find themselves faced with another troubling problem: weight gain.
Experts say that for up to 25% of people, most antidepressant medications -- including the popular SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) drugs like Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft -- can cause a weight gain of 10 pounds or more.
"This is true across all countries, all cultures, all income levels, across all levels of success -- women have higher rates of depression," says Myrna M. Weissman, PhD, an epidemiologist and psychiatry professor at Columbia University School of Medicine in New York.
"Before puberty, rates of depression are about equal between boys and girls," she tells WebMD. "At puberty, the rates skyrocket in girls. There are men who suffer from depression, but not anything near the rate in women."
In 1999, Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, noted these same rates in his report on mental health. Although women have more opportunities than ever before, they still fight a bigger battle against depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
Under the Skull
Using sophisticated brain imaging, researchers have found that men's and women's brains are indeed built differently.
In one study, a group of researchers found that men's brains synthesize more of the mood-lifting brain chemical serotonin than women's brains do -- 52% more.
For women, antidepressant drugs that affect serotonin, like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, work better, reports Susan G. Kornstein, MD, head of the outpatient psychiatry clinic at the Virginia Commonwealth University.
Serotonin found primarily in a brain region called the amygdala, where emotions are processed, explains Stephan Hamann, PhD, a psychology researcher at Emory University in Atlanta.
This is the "fight-or-flight" center of the brain, the region that registers anxiety, fear, joy, stress, even lust, he says.
Emotional Secrets of the Amygdala
The amygdala is an almond-shaped area of the brain that controls emotion. In adulthood, the size of a man's amygdala doesn't differ much from a woman's. However, recent studies have found that when men and women look at photographs, they register the memory on opposite sides of the amygdala.