Ketamine is a drug that is quite unique. When it comes to treating depression, the results have been so good, it’s been a surprise for many in psychiatry. “This is a game-changer,” Dr John Krystal, chief psychiatrist at Yale Medicine, told Medical Xpress. “When you take ketamine, it triggers reactions in your cortex that enable brain connections to regrow. It’s the reaction to ketamine, not the presence of ketamine in the body that constitutes its effects.”
For a lot of people who try ketamine for depression or other mental illnesses, it can be a last resort. They’ve often tried many other medications already, some with little or no success, before trying ketamine. And then, in many cases, they’re stunned by the quick-acting results that they ask, “Why didn’t I try this sooner?”
Drugs like SSRIs work on the serotonin system. These drugs can take weeks or months to kick in, whereas ketamine has shown rapid results, sometimes in a few days or even hours. Ketamine works on the glutamate system instead, so it’s a completely novel antidepressant.
Here are some other reasons why ketamine might be considered as a depression treatment, rather than an option that is explored only when others have been exhausted.
Ketamine Is Safe
Ketamine has been around since the 1960s but didn’t become popular in medicine until the 1970s. Today, it is the most common anesthetic in the world, according to the World Health Organization. It has widespread use as a painkiller and a sedative, especially in emergency rooms and veterinary medicine.
Ketamine is one of the safest drugs around, and it doesn’t significantly suppress the respiratory system nor is it highly addictive, like painkillers such as morphine.
That doesn’t mean ketamine is free of side effects, but they are much easier to manage than some drugs. However, it does need to be administered by medical professionals in a clinical setting.
Ketamine Works Fast
If you are severely depressed or especially if you are having suicidal thoughts, waiting a few weeks or months for traditional antidepressants to begin working can be dangerous. In some cases, certain drugs can actually make depressive symptoms worse in the meantime.
Other antidepressants also require you to take a dose every day, which means you can’t quit them immediately but must be weaned off them. They can also have side effects on sexual drive, energy levels and more.
On the other hand, ketamine has been shown in numerous controlled clinical studies to work very quickly. In the first study on ketamine and depression, published in 2000, patients saw a relief of symptoms in just four hours, according to Bloomberg.
So what does ketamine feel like?
“It was like a spring breeze had blown through my head and just cleaned out all the detritus that had built up over years and years,” Claudia Kieffer told the Guardian. “And when you’ve suffered from depression for as long as I had, it feels like you’re drowning. So when something comes along that makes you feel so very different and healthy, you want to know what that drug is.”
It Doesn’t Always Work The First Time For Everyone
Ketamine has an impressive success rate. For example, up to 80% or more of people can see improvements in symptoms. That measure of success includes a 50% reduction in depressive symptoms lasting three months or longer.
But that’s not everyone, and some people need a few ketamine infusions before experiencing relief.
Some people, like Claudia, take ketamine and feel their symptoms evaporate. Other people who take ketamine for depression or PTSD have to get repeat infusions every three or six months.
Some people are critical about this aspect of ketamine, but temporary relief can be a powerful thing for someone who is so depressed they can’t function in life or is at risk of committing suicide. Being able to go to work, spend time with family and enjoy life for months at a time after just one treatment is a huge improvement.
Because ketamine doesn’t have to be taken every day, patients don’t have to worry about missing a dose or becoming dependent on a drug. While there are some drawbacks to ketamine treatment when you weigh the potential benefits of ketamine as a treatment for depression, you can understand the excitement around this novel approach to helping those struggling with these debilitating symptoms.