- What is Zoloft?
- Is Zoloft Addictive?
- Statistical Overview of Prevalence of Abuse
- The History of Zoloft
- Methods of Use
- Physical and Neurological Effects of Zoloft
- Common Zoloft Combinations
- Negative Health Consequences
- Signs & Symptoms of Zoloft Addiction
- Other Abuse Signs
- Key Sources
- Medical Disclaimer
For people with clinical mood disorders, the option of taking a medication that relieves depression and anxiety can feel like a lifesaver. Drugs like Zoloft are designed to stabilize moods, appetite, and sleep patterns, as well as reduce feelings of fear and anxiety. However, like any drug that is used for long periods, there are always risks involved.
Despite its effectiveness for depression, anxiety, and behavioral conditions, Zoloft is still an addictive substance. This is because of the uncomfortable withdrawal and rebound effects that can occur when Zoloft use is stopped. Individuals can also become psychologically addicted to the medication, because they find it difficult to function normally without it.
However, there is hope for recovery for those who become addicted to Zoloft. With multiple treatment options available, individuals can restore their health and lead new lives free from addiction.
Before going into the treatment methods that are available for Zoloft addiction, this article will provide an outline of what Zoloft is and what the long-term effects are.
What is Zoloft?
Zoloft is the brand name for sertraline, an anti-depressant medication that is used to treat mood disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and symptoms associated with premenstrual tension. Between 2016-17, Zoloft was the most prescribed anti-depressant in the U.S., with an annual sales of over $2 billion.
Belonging to the class of anti-depressants known as “serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (SSRIs), Zoloft works by controlling serotonin levels in the brain. SSRIs are known to have fewer side effects than other anti-depressants, like tricyclics, and they are reported to be more effective than Prozac for some subtypes of depression.
While Zoloft is largely referred to by its generic or brand name, there are street names for this substance, such as:
- Bottled Smiles
- Happy Pill
- Miracle Drug
- Wonder Drug
How Does Zoloft Work?
As an SSRI, Zoloft essentially makes more serotonin available in the brain. The result of this increased serotonin is that it can improve energy levels, mood, sleep quality, and appetite, as well as decrease levels of fear, panic, and anxiety. This makes it an effective treatment for mood disorders, anxiety conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and behavioral disorders.
Zoloft works by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin neurotransmitters by nerve cells and allowing more serotonin to be available in the brain and central nervous system. A higher abundance of serotonin is known to have mood stabilizing effects, which is what makes this medication particularly effective for depression.
While Zoloft can be safely used in most cases, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified some high-risk groups that are not suited to the medication due to potential health complications.
Children and Teens
Zoloft is currently only approved for children aged 6 to 17 if they have OCD. The reason is that people within this age group have demonstrated an increased risk of overdose and suicidal ideation.
Taking Zoloft while pregnant is linked with an increased risk of hypertension and neonatal withdrawal. Therefore, women who are pregnant or intend to get pregnant are advised not to take this medication.
Individuals with Health Conditions
People with heart issues, glaucoma, or diabetes, are advised not to take Zoloft. This is because the medication can speed up heart rate, increase pressure on the eyes, and distort blood sugar levels.
Is Zoloft Addictive?
Anti-depressants were originally designed to be a short-term treatment for mood disorders, which patients would take for only about 6 to 9 months. However, according to some estimates, in 2018 over 15 million Americans were said to have taken anti-depressants for at least 5 years. This extended use can lead to addiction, along with worsened withdrawal effects.
In physical terms, the brain becomes accustomed to the way anti-depressants like Zoloft alter serotonin levels in the brain, especially over the long term. When the brain chemistry is disrupted by discontinuing the drug, people can experience severe withdrawal effects such as rebound depression, suicidal thoughts, chills, fatigue, dizziness, and more. It is these uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that scare many people into continuing the drug for many years.
Psychologically, Zoloft is also addictive because individuals can find it difficult to cope with the change in mood if they stop taking the drug. They may struggle to feel normal without it and symptoms such as rebound depression and anxiety can cause them to become dependent on Zoloft for an indefinite period.
Zoloft Addiction Vs. Dependence
It’s worth noting that there is a difference between Zoloft dependence and addiction. Dependence is a state of adaptation in the body that is caused by regular use of the drug. In this state, the individual isn’t mentally attached to or obsessed with the drug. However, withdrawal symptoms can occur following abrupt discontinuation and medical support may be required to help taper them off the drug.
When an individual is addicted to Zoloft, though, it is considered a primary, chronic, disease that is characterized by cravings, compulsive use, and continued use despite the negative consequences. People who have an addiction are largely unable to function without the drug and will go to extreme lengths to keep using it.
Statistical Overview of Prevalence of Abuse
It is estimated that about 10% of Americans take or use anti-depressants. In 2016, Zoloft was said to be the most prescribed psychiatric medication in the U.S. and the 14th most prescribed medication overall.
Other statistics include:
- According to a 2018 analysis of federal data by The New York Times, nearly 25 million Americans have been on anti-depressants for at least 2 years.
- The rate of anti-depressant use increased by almost 400% between 2005 and 2008.
- The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reports that between 2015 – 2018, 13.2% of adults used anti-depressant medications in the past 30 days.
- In the same survey, anti-depressant use was higher among women (17.7%) than men (8.4%).
- The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression affects some 350 million people worldwide.
The History of Zoloft
Zoloft originated in the 1970s, when a Pfizer chemist named Reinhard Sarges began producing a series of psychoactive compounds. One particular compound called tametraline appeared to be promising, as it led to higher levels of norepinephrine and dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain —these chemicals play an integral role in the body’s stress response and ability to experience pleasure. However, due to tametraline’s stimulant properties, it was subsequently discontinued.
Despite this discontinuation, in 1977, two other Pfizer chemists, Kenneth Koe and Willard Welch, began synthesizing derivatives of tametraline. After Welch prepared stereoisomers of one of the compounds within these derivatives, he asked a behavioral scientist to test the product in vivo. These experiments subsequently led to the production of sertraline (now known as Zoloft).
In 1990, sertraline was approved for medicinal use in the UK, and was subsequently approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991. The drug was later approved in 2002 for children aged 6 and above who have severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Methods of Use
Zoloft comes in three different dosages: 25 mg, 50 mg, and 100 mg. The 100 mg capsule contains the highest dose available in a single pill. Zoloft is also available in a 20 mg/ml solution.
Zoloft pills and capsules can be identified by the brand name and dosage imprinted on the side. They are also color-coded, depending on their strength:
- 25 mg: green capsule
- 50 mg: blue capsule
- 100 mg: yellow capsule
Zoloft starts working within 30 minutes to an hour, and reaches its maximum effectiveness within 4 to 6 hours.
An average adult dose of Zoloft is 50 mg per day (and should not exceed more than 200 mg per day). For children with OCD, dosage is dictated by the doctor, but can start around 25 mg per day, up to a maximum of 200 mg per day.
Physical and Neurological Effects of Zoloft
Zoloft influences brain chemicals that are responsible for mood, energy, and appetite. However, people that use or abuse this drug rarely take it to get high. Some of the initial effects that a person may experience while getting accustomed to Zoloft include:
- Increased energy
- Improved appetite
- Better sleep quality
- Improved mood
- Reduced anxieties and fears
Potential Side Effects
Zoloft can also cause some uncomfortable side effects, especially during the first few weeks, while the body adjusts. These can include:
- Stomach pain
- Trouble sleeping
- Ejaculation problems
Common Zoloft Combinations
While Zoloft is not often used to get high, many people end up mixing the drug with other substances, either by chance or to minimize side effects. While this can be toxic, some of the most frequent combinations include:
It may be tempting to drink alcohol on anti-depressants. However, as alcohol and Zoloft can both cause sedation, mixing these two substances is risky. For one, alcohol can enhance some of the uncomfortable side effects of Zoloft, such as dizziness, drowsiness, and difficulty concentrating. Alcohol is also a depressant and can worsen anxiety or depression, leading to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
Another danger of mixing these two substances is that they can lead to overdoses. Having too much alcohol in the system can impair judgment and a person may take more Zoloft than intended — or vice versa.
Another risky combination is cocaine and Zoloft. On the one hand, cocaine causes the brain to release serotonin, and on the other, anti-depressants allow more of this neurotransmitter to be available. Therefore, the combination of these two drugs results in an over-abundance of serotonin in the body and can cause a dangerous condition known as “serotonin syndrome.” In this state, the brain and body receive more serotonin than they can handle. Symptoms include:
Like alcohol, cannabis can increase the sedative effects of Zoloft. While this may be appealing at first, it can lead to abuse. Also, there is a risk that a person can take too much of either or both substances, leading to over-sedation and loss of consciousness.
Also, cannabis can worsen or enhance anxiety, which is dangerous for someone with panic disorder or anxiety issues. Cannabis also shares similar side effects to Zoloft, such as dizziness and nausea, so combining the two will only worsen these symptoms.
Negative Health Consequences
Long-term Zoloft use can leave lasting and damaging effects on a person’s physical and mental health. Some of the reported issues include:
- Sexual problems and an inability to reach orgasm
- Weight gain
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Not feeling like themselves
- Reduced positive feelings
- Feelings of addiction
- Caring less about other people
- Feeling suicidal
Other health conditions associated with long-term Zoloft use include:
- Diabetes and blood sugar issues
- Weight gain
- Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Brain zaps
- Heart palpitations
- Brain damage
- Higher risk of death
Another important thing to look out for is a potential Zoloft overdose. Key signs and symptoms of an overdose include:
- Increased heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shaking and tremors
Signs & Symptoms of Zoloft Addiction
Zoloft can be both physically and psychologically addicting, especially if it is used for sustained periods. The signs and symptoms of addiction can vary from person to person, depending on how much they take and how long they’ve used it. However, there are physical, psychological, behavioral, and social signs to watch out for.
Physical Signs of Addiction
Individuals who regularly take Zoloft for long periods can exhibit physical signs of addiction, such as:
- Decreased libido
- Slurred speech
- Bloodshot eyes
Any sudden changes in behavior can be clear indicators of a problem. Some of the behavioral signs of Zoloft addiction also apply to other prescription drug dependencies. These include:
- Running out of prescriptions early
- Faking symptoms to get Zoloft prescriptions
- Hiding or lying about Zoloft use
- Difficulties controlling Zoloft use
- Frequently taking Zoloft pills
- Continuing to use Zoloft despite its negative side-effects
- Isolation from work, family, and social life
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies
- Insomnia or over-sleeping
- Worsening performance at school or work
- Suspicious behavior
- Abusing other substances (“poly-substance use”)
- Relationship problems
Other Abuse Signs
Aside from the signs above, there are a few other identifying behaviors to watch out for if you suspect someone has a Zoloft addiction.
Most doctors will restrict the amount of Zoloft a person can obtain and will only prescribe a certain amount. People who are addicted to Zoloft will often resort to finding multiple doctors who can give them prescriptions for the drug. This can be a more extreme sign of addiction, as the individual is taking desperate measures to acquire more than the prescribed amount. As part of this doctor shopping, individuals will also tend to travel great distances to different pharmacies to remain undetected.
Due to the way that Zoloft influences moods, some people may find it difficult to stabilize their mood or even function normally without it. Therefore, if someone is having frequent mood swings and you know that they regularly use Zoloft, it can be a sign of ongoing addiction.
Like many drug addictions, excessive use can lead to financial burdens. Individuals may struggle to pay for their Zoloft addiction while maintaining daily living costs, such as rent and bills. Also, long-term drug use may cause them to lose their jobs, resulting in a downward spiral of substance abuse and financial problems.
Like most addictions, a person who is dependent on Zoloft may see the drug as a quick fix. In other words, they will turn to the drug regularly to feel their best in the face of challenging situations. This includes taking it to perk up in social situations and to cope with everyday stresses. The problem with this “quick fix” behavior is that it can lead to abuse over time.
If you or a loved one are struggling with Zoloft abuse or addiction, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.
You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.
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Carey, B., and Gebeloff, R. (2018). Many People Taking Antidepressants Discover They Cannot Quit. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/07/health/antidepressants-withdrawal-prozac-cymbalta.html.
Editorial Staff. (2021). Antidepressant Addiction. Dual Diagnosis.org. https://dualdiagnosis.org/prescription-drug-treatment/antidepressant-addiction.
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