Antidepressants like Sarafem®, Prozac®, and Zoloft® are the most commonly prescribed medications for PMDD and PMS. In fact, if you’ve talked to a doctor or done a little internet research about PMDD and PMS, there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with the use of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class of drugs for the treatment of PMDD and severe PMS.
We discussed previously how Sarafem® was brought to market for PMS only after the patent on Prozac was about to expire, and that before Sarafem®, PMDD was not a household word. And, of course, like all medications, antidepressant side effects are a real concern.
Recently an even more important question has come to the forefront, accentuated by the recent New York Times Magazine article by Siddhartha Mukherjee which discussed, among other things, the research of the Ph.D. psychologist Irving Kirsch, who conducted groundbreaking research showing that SSRI antidepressants do not work much better than placebo (sugar pill.) Kirsch also found that the drug companies and the FDA suppressed negative studies of SSRI antidepressants, and this resulted in a skewed and overly optimistic estimate of their effects. At this point, the the research on SSRIs adds up to one unavoidable conclusion: most of the prescriptions for Prozac®, Zoloft®, and similar drugs are of questionable utility, because these drugs don’t work significantly better than placebo for mild and moderate depression. SSRIs do work well for serious, major depression.
This brings us to the important question of whether SSRI antidepressants for PMDD and PMS are a good idea. Do they work? Are they better than placebo? How can we tell which woman really needs antidepressants for PMDD, and who doesn’t? Is the risk of side effects worth the risk of trying a medication that may be no better than sugar pill?
The answer to the first question is yes – antidepressants work for PMDD. The tricky part is that it is now a clear scientific fact that for mild and moderate depression, antidepressants aren’t superior to placebo, so it is unlikely that they are better than placebo for severe PMS and PMDD. But the real crux of the issue is the third question: how does anyone know if antidepressants are the right choice?
There is no way to determine this answer based on blood tests or a doctor’s exam. This important decision must be based on the severity of the symptoms, as determined by both the prescribing health care practitioner, and the patient. Do the symptoms resemble those of major depressive disorder? Are they truly debilitating and oppressive so that they are major impediment to functioning in the world, living life, and fulfilling one’s role and responsibilities?
There are certainly cases of major depression that meet these criteria, and they often respond to the SSRI antidepressants. Similarly, we can expect that when PMDD symptoms are so severe that they might as well be major depressive disorder for days to weeks out of the month, SSRIs are appropriate.
However, as we referenced earlier, SSRI antidepressants have side effects, and many women prefer to avoid them. When PMS and even PMDD symptoms fall short of the kind of interference with living that major depression causes, there are a wealth of excellent alternatives that have few side effects; are effective, and more effective than placebo; and that in some cases have been shown to be as effective as antidepressants.
Women and doctors should consider diet and stress management, as well as other lifestyle factors, as effective PMS & PMDD therapies. Proven remedies like Vitex agnus-castus, or Chasteberry; calcium; magnesium; and vitamin B6 as first line natural PMDD treatments that can be used before, or even instead of, antidepressants. Other supplements and herbs such as B-complex vitamins; the herbs Dong Quai and Black Cohosh; and the problems of food allergy and hypoglycemia are all worth adding to the list of natural PMDD alternatives.