Antidepressant rankings: Zoloft and Lexapro considered best overall

A number of antidepressants were recently ranked in different surveys:

Zoloft and Lexapro came in first for a combination of effectiveness and fewer side effects, followed by Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), Cymbalta, and Luvox among others.

The first was efficacy — or how likely patients were to experience the desired effects of the drug.

Efficacy:

1. Remeron (Mirtazapine)
2. Lexapro (Escitalopram)
3. Effexor (Venlafaxine)
4. Zoloft (Sertraline)
5. Celexa (Citalopram)
6. Wellbutrin (Buproprion)
7. Paxil (Paroxetine)
8. Savella (Milnacipran)
9. Prozac (Fluoxetine)
10. Cymbalta (Duloxetine)
11. Luvox (Fluvoxamine)
12. Vestra (Reboxetine)

The second was acceptability — the likelihood that a patient would continue using a drug for the duration of the study (it is generally assumed that a high ratio of patients dropping out indicates the presence of undesirable side effects for a drug).

Acceptability:

1. Zoloft (Sertraline)
2. Lexapro (Escitalopram)
3. Wellbutrin (Buproprion)
4. Celexa (Citalopram)
5. Prozac (Fluoxetine)
6. Savella (Milnacipran)
7.
Remeron (Mirtazapine)
8. Effexor (Venlafaxine)
9. Paxil (Paroxetine)
10. Cymbalta (Duloxetine)
11. Luvox (Fluvoxamine)
12. Vestra (Reboxetine)

antidepressantsMy experience with Lexapro was a disaster and I’ve written about Zoloft’s connection with irritability and rage. Paxil’s side effects are especially rough (see Bob Fiddaman’s Seroxat page) while Effexor’s withdrawal effects proved to be significantly challgenging. Although Prozac offset Effexor’s withdrawal symptoms, it causes severe somnolence that can impair cognitive functioning. And last but not least, Cymbalta contributed to the unfortunate death of Traci Johnson who had no history of depression.

These drugs may be effective for many people but it’s still a guessing game. Dr. Mark I. Levy, quoted in ABC News’s article on the rankings, mentioned that while psychiatrists may not have much use for the rankings, he sees them as beneficial for primary care physicians. And Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a professor at Duke University Medical Center, adds:

“I would be likely to start patients on either Zoloft [because it’s cheaper] or Lexapro … Unfortunately, that is almost none of my patients. By the time they get to me [a psychiatrist], the primary-care doctors have tried Zoloft and other antidepressants, so my patient are not the “new to medication” kind of patients,” he said.

I won’t rehash my thoughts on PCPs prescribing antidepressants and other psych meds. You can read about them here.

Analysis of "Depression: Out of the Shadows"


The show is essentially Depression 101 – for those new to learning
about the illness.
As someone who struggles with depression (within
bipolar disorder), I found a lot of the two hours pretty boring (90
minutes on personal stories and about 22 minutes for "candid
conversation"). The "a lot" comes from the stuff that I've either heard before or flies over my head, eg, how depression affects the brain, prefrontal cortex, neurotransmitters, synapses, etc. The personal stories were powerful: depressingly heartwarming. (Yes, I mean that.)

My heart sank as I heard the stories of Emma and Hart, teenagers who were diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, respectively. Both were such extreme cases that they needed to be sent away for special psychiatric care. They are on medications for their disorders; the specific drugs are never mentioned.

While watching Deana's story of treatment-resistant depression, I instantly thought of Herb of VNSDepression.com whose wife suffers from the same malady.

I tried to listen attentively for the antidepressant that Ellie, who suffered from PPD after the birth of her first child, would be taking during her next pregnancy. It was never mentioned.

My jaw nearly dropped to the carpet as Andrew Solomon, carefully plucked brightly colored pills from his pillbox that he takes every morning for his unipolar depression: Remeron, Zoloft, Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, Namenda, Ranitidine, and two kinds of fish oil. He might have even mentioned Prozac. He takes Namenda, an Alzheimer's drug to combat the effects of an adverse interaction between Wellbutrin and one of the other drugs that I can't remember. Solomon says he's happy. I'm happy for him and I'm happy that his drug cocktail works for him but I couldn't help but sit there and wonder, "Isn't there a better way?"

While I thought the stories covered the gamut, in retrospect, I'm surprised they didn't interview a veteran or U.S. soldier to discuss PTSD. If the producers were able to fit in dysthymia, I'm sure they might have been able to throw in a story about a soldier who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts stemming out of PTSD. Considering all the stories coming out of the VA, it's rather relevant. It would have been more interesting than the Jane Pauley segment. But I'll get to that in a minute.

As I listened to the narrator, I couldn't help but wonder what alternate perspectives could have popped up. For what it was, I fear none. This was a Depression 101 show — a program designed to either get people to fight against fear and stigma and get help or to open the eyes of loved ones to this debilitating disorder. I'm not sure how to slip in an opposing view on medication from a doctor without confusing or scaring people away. What would Healy or Breggin say that would encourage people to seek appropriate care?

Holistic or natural treatment was not mentioned. It's not mainstream and it's not recommended by most doctors as first-line therapy. I would have been surprised had something been said about it.

The depression portion of bipolar disorder was briefly discussed in Hart's story then Pauley added commentary about her personal experience in the remaining 22 minutes of the program.

Pauley appears at the end of the show promising a "candid conversation" on the topic. The three experts: Drs. Charney, Duckworth, and Primm sit and smile politely as Pauley rattles on occasionally about herself. Some people might find her exchange endearing and personal. After the first 3 minutes, I found it annoying. As a journalist, I wish she would have taken the impartial observer approach rather than the "intimate discussion" approach. In my opinion, she seemed to have dominated the "discussion."

It ended up being a Q&A with each doctor. Her questions were focused and direct. I expected a little bit of an exchange between doctors, talking not only about the pros of medication and treatment like ECT and VNS but also the cons. (Should I apologize for being optimistic?) Charney interjected into the conversation maybe once or twice but was only to offer an assenting opinion. Primm spoke least of everyone on the panel. I think she was placed on the show solely to represent diversity.

There were no "a recent study said…" or "critics say such-and-such, how do you address that?" It was a straightforward emphasis on encouraging people to get help or for those suffering to get treatment. Pauley's segment didn't discuss any negatives (not with the medical director of NAMI there!). The closest the entire 2 hours gets to any cons is with ECT shock treatment and giving medication to growing children. The childhood medication thing isn't dwelt on. The basic gist is: Doctors don't understand how medication works in children but are working on trying to understand it and improve its efficacy.

Forgive me for being negative. The point of the program was designed to give hope to those suffering. Instead, it just made me feel even worse. Thoughts raced through my head: "Well, if this doesn't work, then it's on to that. And if that medication doesn't work then I'll probably be prescribed this therapy, and if that doesn't work, then I'm treatment-resistant at which point, I'll have to do…"

I hope the program does what it's designed to do and that's to get those suffering with depression to seek appropriate care. The one upside is that talk therapy was stressed. I'm a huge proponent of talk therapy myself. Let me know what you thought of the show if you were able to catch it.

In the meantime, this depressed girl is going to cure herself for the night by going to bed.

P.S. Is it really fact that depression is a disease?

Women & Antidepressants

Pink, a magazine for business women, has an article in its April/May 2007 issue titled, “The Magic Pill.” (The only way to read this article is to get a hard-copy of the mag.) No, this isn’t about birth control. The subhead: “Antidepressants are now used for everything from migraines to menopause. But are women getting an overdose?”

Good question. The article, well-written by Mary Anne Dunkin, does a nice job of trying to present both sides of the coin. One subject, Pam Gilchrist, takes tricyclic antidepressants to relieve her fibromyalgia symptoms. “One of the [antidepressants] that allows her to keep going” is Effexor (venlafaxine). God forbid the woman should ever have to come off of that one. (It works well when you’re on it, but withdrawal is sheer hell.)

The other subject mentioned in the article, Billie Wickstrom, suffers from bipolar disorder, but had a therapist who diagnosed her with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The psychiatrist she was referred to promptly put her on Anafranil (clomipramine). We all know what antidepressants tend to do for those with bipolar disorder. Wickstrom blanked out at an interview that she says she normally would have aced. In another incident, she veered off-course after leaving town and spent the night on the side of the road with her daughter. “Search parties in three states” were out looking for them.

“Three years and three hospitalizations later, Wickstrom is finally free of clomipramine and has a job she loves as PR director for a $300 million family of companies. She says she’s happy, she’s focused and she feels great – consistently.”

Dunkin’s article uncovers a large, problematic use – by my standards, anyway – of off-label usage by doctors.

“Gilchrist… is one of the estimated one in 10 American women taking some type of antidepressant medication. And a considerable percentage of these prescriptions, particularly those for tricyclic antidepressants, are not used to treat depression at all.

A growing number of doctors today prescribe antidepressants for a wide range of problems, including anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, migraines, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, premenstrual syndrome, menopausal hot flashes and smoking cessation.”

I’m sure the list goes on, but magazines have but oh so much space.

Melissa McNeilDr. Melissa McNeil at the University of Pittsburgh points out three things:

  1. Since depression is a prevalent (see common) condition, doctors are better detecting it.
  2. Since antidepressants have proven their safety and efficacy, primary care physicians have no reservations prescribing them.
  3. Clinical studies are finding that antidepressants can aid a number of medical issues apart from depression.

My take on McNeil’s points (I’ll try to keep them brief):

  • Depression is way too common to be abnormal. If a woman has a rough patch in life for 2 weeks or more, she’s got depression. As for doctors being better at detecting depression? Studies consistently show that doctors are great at overlooking depression in men.
  • Antidepressants haven’t proven jack squat. Placebos have proven more safety and efficacy than antidepressants. PCPs have no reservations prescribing them because they only know about the positive facts that pharma reps tell them instead of researching the potential side effects.
  • Clinical studies aren’t finding all those things out. Seroquel has FDA-approval to treat psychiatric symptoms (psychosis, for one). As far as I know, Seroquel is not FDA-approved to treat insomnia or crappy sleeping patterns. There are no specific clinical studies to see if Seroquel can treat insomnia. Seroquel is prescribed to treat insomnia/restless sleep because doctors have found that a major side effect of the drug is somnolence. If this is the case, Effexor should be prescribed for weight loss. It’d be the new Fen-Phen.

Dunkin cites two widely used antidepressants for nonpsychiatric uses: Wellbutrin (bupropion) and Prozac (fluoxetine). Zyban, used for smoking cessation is, well, bupropion. Sarafem, used to treat PMS symptoms is – you guessed it – fluoxetine.

Viktor BouquetteDr. Viktor Bouquette of Progressive Medical Group thankfully takes a more cautious approach:

“The widespread use – mostly misuse – by physicians of antidepressants to treat women for far-ranging symptoms from insomnia, chronic fatigue and irritability to PMS and menopause is merely another unfortunate example of the pharmaceutical industry’s tremendous influence on the practice of modern medicine. Take enough antidepressants and you may likely still have the symptoms, but you won’t care.”

Kudos to Dunkin for landing that quote. Since Bouquette is part of an alternative medicine group, he’s got a good motive for slamming pharma companies.

McNeil goes on to sound anti-d happy in the article. Not that it matters, but she is also a section editor for the Journal of Women’s Health, which has several corporate associates representing pharmaceutical companies. (She is also the only source in the article who sings anti-d’s praises.) Dunkin tracked down Dr. Scott Haltzman, a clinical professor at the Brown University Department of Psychiatry, who advocated patient responsibility.

“Just because antidepressants work for depression does not mean they should always be used. People need to learn skills to manage their depressive symptoms instead of depending on medication. When you take medicine for every complaint, you lose the opportunity to learn how to regulate your mood on your own.”

Oh, for more doctors like Haltzman and Bouquette.

UPDATE: Uh, alleged fraud suit pending against Progressive Medical Group. Bouquette is now part of Progressive Medical Centers of America.

Antidepressants rake in billions

The following is data I found at USAToday.com. Shouldn’t be shocking but I can’t help but think of pharmaceutical execs rolling around in dough, laughing happily at medicating those who find nothing but hopelessness and sadness.

Top-selling antidepressant drugs in 2005:

  • Zoloft: $3.1 billion
  • Effexor XR: $2.6 billion
  • Lexapro: $2.1 billion
  • Wellbutrin XL: $1.5 billion
  • Cymbalta: $667 million

Source: IMS Health
Give Cymbalta time since it’s relatively new to the market. It’ll catch up. I also can’t help but think that the friendly Zoloft ads have helped push its profit margin to first place. The ads are nearly everywhere. Come antidepressant time, it’s the first med that patients think of and probably ask their doctor for.