Coming off antidepressants was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I remember going to a naturopath shortly after the worst part of my withdrawal symptoms had ended and she told me that most people “are never the same again” after taking antidepressant drugs. Personally, after being through a very horrible withdrawal from a very heavy antidepressant, I can confidently say that I disagree with that statement. I believe the human body and mind has an incredible ability to heal and balance provided it is given the right support. That’s not to say that antidepressants didn’t have a lasting effect, in my case, the effects antidepressants had on my gut far outlasted the effects they had on my brain.
I think many people are aware that over 90% of all serotonin (a neurotransmitter responsible for boosting mood and happiness) in the body is actually produced in the gut and not the brain. Because of this, you would expect antidepressant drugs (which raise serotonin levels) to have a profound effect on the gut. Surprisingly there is very little research on how antidepressants affect the gut and gut microbiome. In actual fact, scientists and doctors are still not sure what role serotonin has in the intestines. The only thing we know for sure is that serotonin seems to be involved in assisting gut peristalsis (the movement of food and waste throughout the intestines).
In my experience, it was obvious within a few short weeks after coming off antidepressants that something had changed. Much to my surprise the problems with my gut post antidepressants were very different than what I would have expected (leaky gut, food intolerances or IBS etc) As with all my other health problems I have always turned to scientific research to help me find the root cause of my problem but with such little research available on this topic I was at a loss as to what happened to my gut for many many years. It was only after I attended a gut-brain seminar in my local area that I finally understood the effects that antidepressants had on my gut. Although I don’t have too much research to back up my experience I want to share my story because I am positive that many other people will find themselves in a similar situation post antidepressants and maybe this can help them find some answers.
My gut before antidepressants:
In order to provide some context, I thought it would be necessary to provide some information about my gut before I took antidepressants. All in all, I think my gut was mostly normal. I had a shocking diet that was lacking in fibre and I definitely did not drink enough water. I was a very fussy eater that ate a lot of junk and sugar and very little variety of healthy foods. I had taken my fair share of antibiotics as a child and turned to strong pain relief like Panadeine Forte if normal Panadol wasn’t strong enough at that time of the month. I didn’t suffer any food allergies or intolerances at all (except maybe a mild intolerance to cows milk) and I didn’t drink alcohol but my eating patterns were erratic and my gut responded accordingly. I had all the symptoms you would expect with the eating patterns and lifestyle I mentioned above. My digestion was irregular and I would often suffer short bouts of constipation. I also would get intestinal cramping quite regularly, which was quite painful but it didn’t happen often enough for me to be concerned. All of these issues cleared up very quickly once I changed my diet, developed regular eating patterns and drank more water.
My gut on antidepressants:
Describing what my gut felt like while taking antidepressants is a very weird thing to do. The best way I can describe it is that I felt paralyzed. My digestion slowed and I would only go to the toilet every 2-3 days. I don’t remember having any pain, in fact, I lost all sensation in my gut. Antidepressants actually took away my ability to know when I needed to go to the toilet. I remember I would go through little episodes where I would start to feel really off and I had no idea what was wrong with me. It was at those times that my husband would suggest “why don’t you go to the toilet” and I would respond with “but I don’t need to” and he would tell me to “just try” and it so happened that I did need to go to the toilet every time but I just couldn’t tell. I actually had no sensation when I was having a bowel movement at all and no sensation when I had finished so it was difficult for me to tell when and if I had finished. Beyond that, I don’t remember any other gut-specific side effects that I experienced while on antidepressants.
My gut after antidepressants:
Almost instantly after I stopped taking antidepressants I felt my gut return to normal. The sensation of needing to go to the toilet returned and I lost that weird feeling I would get when I needed to go to the toilet (but couldn’t tell). For the first 2-3 months post antidepressants I remember my gut being a little over sensitive: I would get mild cramping quite regularly and the need to go to the toilet would come on quite suddenly and intensely and often a few times a day. After that my gut mostly returned to normal, I had also begun to change my diet and eating behaviours at this time so my gut was actually doing much better than it ever used to. However, I began to notice quite quickly that I could no longer tolerate medications and supplements. I began to respond badly to all synthetic supplements and even natural health supplement powders that were mostly food based. I didn’t really take any medication from that point as I became horrified at the effects of pharmaceutical drugs after my horrible withdrawal reaction to antidepressants but I knew that any medication I took would devastate my system. If I ever attempted to take medications or supplements I would instantly get fatigue, brain fog, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes even a rash. These reactions carried on for years every time I attempted to take anything or even if I took a supplement in food by mistake. Of course, I avoided all medications and supplements (and I still do) as much as possible but it was a very difficult situation to be in because virtually no doctor or health care provider believed me when I would tell them that I was too sensitive to medications and supplements. Beyond that, I myself was very confused as to what was going on with me because I had no obvious reaction to food. I could eat pretty much anything without much of a reaction. I have no food intolerances and do really well with the usual culprits like gluten and dairy (I did minimize my dairy for other health reasons but my gut was never affected). The only food related reaction that I noticed post antidepressants was if I ever ate something overly fatty, oily or junky as well as a slight reaction to protein powders (they always made me nauseous). I also had a very mild reaction (mostly excess gas) to histamine containing foods, in my case mostly onions and fermented foods like yogurt, sourdough bread and probiotics, however this was due to my hormonal imbalance. I don’t believe it was related to the antidepressants. To me, this suggested that I didn’t suffer from leaky gut or food sensitivities and was for the most part normal. I did as much research as I could to try to figure out why I had become so sensitive, the most that I could find was other people online reporting that their guts were more sensitive post antidepressants too. It wasn’t until the gut seminar that I attended that spoke about the gut not liking “concentrated and refined doses” of anything that I believe I got closure over what happened to my gut. Of all the things we ingest in our bodies, few are more concentrated and refined than medications and synthetic supplements. (Oils, protein powders, and refined sugars are also considered concentrated and can lead to nausea and diarrhea in some people when eaten in excess. This also happened to me but to a lesser degree than medications and supplements). Our intestines were designed to try and eliminate concentrated items as soon as possible, mostly because the body perceives them as toxins. I believe that post antidepressants, my gut became over-reactive and so the natural processes of eliminating toxins from the gut became exaggerated and more intense. To me, this makes sense because we know that serotonin has a calming and numbing effect on the movement of waste through the intestines, (which is why my gut felt paralyzed while on the drugs). Post antidepressants, it is likely that the gut has either stopped making its own serotonin or reduced the amount of serotonin it was producing (as it was getting it as a result of the antidepressant drugs). For this reason, our intestines become agitated, over responsive and overly “sensitive” for a period of time until the gut returns to normal.
As mentioned before, this is just my personal experience, and I have little research to back up my theory. However, the reaction of the body shutting down normal biological processes because of taking drugs that can do the same job is common throughout the entire body and almost guaranteed. There are always consequences and side effects when we try to take over normal biological functions that are often greatly overlooked by the pharmaceutical and medical industries.
It is true that my reaction may have been more intense because I was taking antidepressants to try to treat a hormonal imbalance and not depression, therefore it is unlikely that I was low in serotonin. It cannot be confirmed through any known medical test if someone is actually deficient in serotonin, however, it would stand to reason that if this was the case then the reaction of antidepressant drugs on the gut would be less intense. My concern is for the millions of people that are prescribed antidepressant drugs for health problems other than depression (like me) that are unprepared for the reactions that follow.
Personally, I believe that my gut has now (eight years later) returned to normal or at least is very close to normal however I’m so paranoid over the previous reactions that I am still actively avoiding all supplements and medications unless absolutely necessary. Our bodies are more than capable of staying healthy without any fancy supplementation and medication provided we take responsibility for our health. In fact, many studies suggest much better health outcomes when we rely on diet and lifestyle alone.
If you are reading this and don’t feel quite back to normal after stopping antidepressants (or still on antidepressants) I hope this may have been able to shed some light as to what is going on with your body. Discovering this gave me a lot of closure over my experience and I hope that in some way it may have helped you too.