How Doctors Are Using Ketamine as a Depression Wonder Drug

How have party drugs become the latest legitimate treatment du jour for depression patients? Drugs like ketamine, MDMA, and even psychedelic mushrooms are certainly more often associated with raves, music festivals, and camping in Joshua Tree, not routine visits to the physician. But the truth is, doctors are now finding legitimate uses for such drugs in helping people break the cycles they need in order to confront and handle major traumas.   

“I had patients who it’s basically taken them from being suicidal to living a very full and complete life,” said Dr. David Feifel, a neuropsychologist. “[Some] return on a periodic basis and some of them have just stopped coming in [because they’ve been cured].”

Of course, treating depression with some form of drug is nothing new. Antidepressants can often take weeks to take effect and research shows that about 30% of people with depression don’t respond to traditional pharmaceutical treatment. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, over 16 million American adults struggle with a major depressive disorder and it can be completely debilitating for many of them, acting as the leading cause of disability for Americans between 15 and 44-years old.

“When traditional treatments don’t work, [ketamine] is the least harsh, safest, and fastest-working option that provides long-term relief,” says Dr. Francisco Cruz, a board-certified psychiatrist at Ketamine Health Centers in Miami, Florida.

Doctors don’t fully understand just yet why Ketamine is effective in treating depression symptoms when it is but that's not holding back their optimism. The belief is that while traditional antidepressants shift the balance of hormones called neurotransmitters, ketamine works directly on receptors in the brain. Ketamine blocks many of the receptors that are known to affect or trigger depression and pain responses in the brain. Because ketamine works on the receptors directly and not on shifting hormone balances, it affects the brain much faster than traditional drugs, often going to work in a matter of minutes. During a study of ketamine’s effect on people with treatment-resistant bipolar depression, for example, participants experienced a reversal of their loss of interest in pleasurable activities — a significant symptom of their depression — within 40 minutes of their first ketamine infusion.

“Ketamine is a dissociative agent that works on the neurotransmitter glutamate,” says Cruz. “By antagonizing the glutamate receptor, it has downfield effects on other neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin and the opiate system.”

Of course, this type of treatment is something that is still new, therefore not fully understood by doctors and researchers. It means doctors still consider the danger of treating patients with past substance abuse problems and of course, ketamine infusions as a treatment for depression are to be done under the watch of physicians.

We do a drug test during our initial assessment even before considering scheduling an infusion session. However, a previous history of addiction is not a contraindication to treatment,” says Cruz. “Actually, there are research studies going on now using ketamine to treat addiction…  [Ketamine is] also a good, non-addictive alternative to opioids when it comes to treating chronic pain — which is essential in a time when opioid-abuse is plaguing our community.”

With all that said, whether or not a given individual should consider ketamine infusions to treat their depression should of course always start by having an honest discussion with your doctor.

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