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Understanding the Difference Between Ketamine and Antidepressants

Jul 01, 2022

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Understanding the Difference Between Ketamine and Antidepressants

When antidepressants were first discovered 65 years ago, they became one of the most effective tools for battling mood disorders like depression. Recently, ketamine has garnered a great deal of attention thanks to its success in treating major depressive disorder and treatment-resistant depression. So, what is the difference between the two treatments?

Our team of mental health experts here at Amavi Integrative Mental Wellness, located in Niwot, Colorado, believes in the power of making informed choices when it comes to mental health treatments. To that end, we want to touch on the difference between antidepressants and ketamine here.

A look at antidepressants

There are many antidepressants available today, so we’re going to make some broad generalizations about this approach to treating mood disorders. 

At their core, antidepressants target monoamine neurotransmitters, which include serotonin and norepinephrine — two chemicals in your brain that regulate your moods. In fact, many people refer to serotonin as a “feel-good” chemical.

Most antidepressants work as reuptake inhibitors of these chemicals, which means the medications work by preventing your body from reabsorbing the chemicals too quickly, allowing them to linger in your system longer to improve your mood.

A look at ketamine

Ketamine is a drug that’s been in use as a painkiller for more than half a century. What medical providers noticed is that people taking ketamine also experienced improvements in their mood. Upon further study, researchers believe that ketamine targets N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in your brain.

When the ketamine binds to these NMDA receptors, it increases the production of glutamate in your brain, which is a neurotransmitter that forms neural connections. Ultimately, we think that ketamine works by forming new and healthier neural pathways in your brain.

You may have noticed that we don’t say definitively how antidepressants or ketamine work as the brain still remains much of a mystery. Making matters more complicated, everyone’s brain is different with its own unique chemical balance, so pinpointing an exact cause-and-effect mechanism can be difficult. What we do know is that both approaches to resolving mood disorders can be very effective.

The significant difference between ketamine and antidepressants

The biggest difference between antidepressants and ketamine is the speed at which they work. Antidepressants often take weeks to have an effect and sometimes longer if we need to tweak the medications or dosages.

The reason why the FDA approved certain ketamine treatments in 2019 is that the drug works rapidly to diffuse the symptoms of depression, especially for people who have treatment-resistant depression or who are having significant symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts.

To give you an idea, one study found that, “Ketamine has a robust and rapid effect on depression, which was seen immediately after the administration of ketamine and sustained at the end of one month.”

Many people who take ketamine only undergo a series of treatments, while taking antidepressants is a much longer-term treatment option that requires taking pills every day.

We can’t say here which treatment is right for your mood or anxiety disorder as both can be effective. The best place to start is to schedule an appointment at our office in Niwot, Colorado (serving the Boulder and Longmont areas), to sit down with one of our highly qualified mental health professionals.