According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 Americans suffer from depression. Antidepressants are generally quite helpful, but as a side effect some can cause unwanted weight gain.

Lexapro (escitalopram oxalate) is an antidepressant frequently prescribed to treat depression and anxiety disorders. It belongs to a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin (a key neurotransmitter in mood regulation) in your brain.

What Lexapro Is Used to Treat

Depression: The Black Dog

Winston Churchill called depression his “black dog.” If you happen to suffer from depression, you probably can relate to his description of depression as a black dog of gloom that follows you everywhere.

According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, approximately 80 percent of people with depression improve significantly with treatment. Unfortunately, research shows that there is a 50-60 percent relapse rate for successfully treated depression.

Depression is defined as a medical illness and a mood disorder that lasts longer than a few weeks continuously. Most people with depression have deep feelings of sadness and lack of interest in things that once gave them pleasure (referred to as anhedonia). It affects every aspect of life including relationships and work. In its most extreme state, depression sufferers may attempt to take their own life.

Anxiety Disorders

Our bodies are programmed with an automatic fight-or-flight response. Our heart beats faster, our breathing becomes rapid, and more blood flows into the muscles of our arms and legs as our bodies prepare to either run or stand our ground and fight (as an example, this would happen if you spotted a mountain lion while hiking).

But if you have an anxiety disorder, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode more often, and for longer periods of time. There are a number of different anxiety disorders, including:

  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • panic disorder
  • simple phobia
  • social anxiety disorder

Anxiety disorders are more common than depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five Americans has an anxiety disorder in any given year. If you have an anxiety disorder you are more likely to develop depression, and vice versa.

Why Is Serotonin Important?

Serotonin is a chemical your body makes that relays information between the nerve cells in your brain. Although the causes of depression and anxiety are not completely understood, it’s believed that low serotonin levels are at least partially to blame.

Read a comparison of Prozac and Lexapro »

Scientists agree that serotonin plays an important role in:

  • mood
  • social behavior
  • appetite and digestion
  • sleep patterns
  • memory
  • sexual desire and function

People who have depression and anxiety also tend to have low levels of serotonin. It’s still unknown if depression causes low levels of serotonin, or if low levels of serotonin cause depression. Whatever the answer to this chicken and egg question, Lexapro clearly increases serotonin levels in your brain.

Lexapro and Weight

Lexapro can cause changes in weight. There are some reports that people begin to lose weight when first taking Lexapro, but this is not well supported by research studies. The Mayo Clinic does list Lexapro, however, as an antidepressant that is less likely to contribute to weight gain.

One study found that Lexapro didn’t reduce the obsessive-compulsive symptoms linked to binge-eating disorder. But it did reduce weight and BMI. This may be because study participants taking Lexapro had fewer binge-eating episodes. 

Side Effects

FDA Warning
Those under the age of 25 should be closely monitored when taking an antidepressant. These individuals have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide, especially when they first begin the medication, when there is a change in dosing, or when they stop using the antidepressant.

Most people tolerate Lexapro reasonably well. But the medication does commonly cause side effects, including:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • dry mouth
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • sleep disturbances
  • sexual problems
  • increased sweating
  • loss of appetite
  • constipation
  • infection

Is Lexapro the Choice For You?

In the Future
Brain scans may be used in the future to help determine which antidepressant and/or therapy will be the most effective for healing your depression and anxiety.

Research has shown that there’s no strong reason to recommend one SSRI over another based solely on effectiveness. However, there are differences in how quickly these drugs work and in side effects that should be considered when choosing an antidepressant.

Although it’s not likely you’ll lose weight because of Lexapro, it may be more effective in reducing the symptoms of depression than other SSRIs. Lexapro tends to take effect more quickly, when compared with other SSRIs.