Psychotropic medications: What types of medications are psychotropic, and what are their uses and risks?

Psychotropic medications sound complicated, but the term refers to any drug that has an effect on the brain. Psychotropic medications come in many different forms, with different usages and modes of functionality. 

Even though we might jump straight to pharmaceutical drugs when we hear the word “psychotropic,” the truth is that far more substances than we realize (whether we consider them drugs or not) have psychotropic effects. 

So what psychotropic medications are most common? And what substances that many of us consume regularly are actually psychotropic drugs? Find out the answers—and more—below. 

Which Drugs Are Psychotropic?

By the strictest definition, a psychotropic medication is any drug that can have an effect on the brain, changing the way it works. It’s also important to know that the terms psychoactive and psychotropic are the same. Essentially, they both refer to a chemical substance that changes something about the way your mind functions. 

This might involve your ability to: 

  • Maintain a stable mood 
  • Use reasoning 
  • Focus
  • Sleep
  • Stay awake 
  • Relax
  • Become sexually aroused
  • Maintain your appetite 
  • Suppress your appetite
  • Cope with chronic pain
  • Regulate chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and more 

When evaluating this list, it’s normal to jump to the common prescriptions NPs prescribe, but other substances have psychoactive properties, like:

In the broadest sense, even the foods we eat are psychotropic, even if we don’t think of them as medications, as they can affect the way our brains work. Certain foods, especially highly processed foods with artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors, are thought to worsen the effects of some mental health conditions, particularly ADHD, depression, and anxiety. 

What Are the Five Main Types of Psychotropic Medications?

The main types of legally prescribed psychotropic medications used by psychiatric professionals are:

  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiolytics (anxiety medications)
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Stimulants
  • Hypnotics (sleep medications) 

But just because one medication works well for someone doesn’t mean the same applies to a different person. Though the psychiatric drugs listed above are considered effective, some psychotropic medications like stimulants and antipsychotics may have a robust response that may eliminate unwanted mental health symptoms but also cause side effects that are undesirable for some clients. 

This is because not all psychotropic drugs work in the same way. It’s important, especially with fast-acting psychotropic medications, that they are prescribed in the appropriate circumstances and dosage. That’s why psychiatric professionals closely monitor for side effects and take into consideration a client’s height and weight, among other factors.  

Some psychotropic medications are controlled substances, which due to the Ryan Haight Act, have strict parameters preventing them from being overprescribed. These legal boundaries help prevent addiction, misuse, and the re-selling of potentially addictive psychotropic medications to non-clients, or those who wish to self-medicate with controlled substances.  

That’s why psychiatric professionals closely monitor for side effects and take into consideration a client’s height and weight, other medical conditions, and other medications used by the patient, among other factors.

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What Are Psychotropic Drugs Normally Prescribed for?

As stated, psychotropic medications are used to increase or reduce some aspect(s) of your cognition process. After working with you, diagnosing your mental health conditions, and discussing treatment options with you, a psychiatric provider may prescribe a psychotropic drug to help you manage your symptoms.

Psychotropic medication can help reduce the severity of:

Psychotropic medication may not always be necessary to treat the conditions listed above, but in many cases, people benefit from the assistance of a prescription. 

How Do Psychotropic Drugs Work?

Psychotropic medications (and other substances) all affect receptors in the brain. One of the best ways to understand and visualize this process is to imagine a lock where multiple keys can fit, but only one can be used to open the lock.

In the following example, caffeine is the key and adenosine receptors are the lock.  

Caffeine antagonizes adenosine receptors, which means that caffeine prevents adenosine from binding to the brain’s adenosine receptors, blocking the binding site. Adenosine is an amino acid that’s responsible for making us feel sleepy. 

But, to make things more interesting, caffeine doesn’t fit perfectly into the adenosine “lock”; it acts as an imperfect key that fits, but doesn’t “turn” the pins, so to speak. Only by preventing adenosine (the perfect key) from binding to receptors does caffeine make us feel more awake.

In the meantime, all that built-up adenosine is what causes the infamous “caffeine crash,” a sense of exhaustion that often comes after drinking caffeinated beverages.

Many psychotropic medications work similarly to the relationship between caffeine and adenosine. These psychotropic medications work as keys that can fit into a specific lock but aren’t a perfect fit. In many cases, this is why some psychiatric drugs have unwanted side effects that may be felt more intensely by some clients than others. 

What Is the Best Psychotropic Medication?

The best psychotropic medication is the one that works well for you. That may mean that if you’re struggling with anxiety, a certain anxiety medication may work better for you than for someone else. For reasons that aren’t fully understood yet, some people develop side effects to psychotropic medications while others don’t. 

Using stimulants like Adderall for example, these types of medications cause immediate benefits, but may also cause intense side effects such as appetite loss and sweating. Thankfully, SSRIs are often prescribed in place of stimulant-based psychotropic medications, and psychiatric providers work closely with clients to determine the best medication for each individual. In many cases, a client’s side effects are minimal or disappear soon after adjusting to their new prescription. 

The best psychotropic medication for you also depends on your coping skills, home and work environment, social skills, and many other things. And at present, most psychiatric research is observational. This is because the human brain can’t be experimented on in real time, but the effects and benefits of the medication are closely observed as psychiatric professionals and clients work together. 

With a little persistence, you and your mental health professional can find the prescription that treats your symptoms with little to no side effects. Everyone may respond differently to medications. Family members may respond to the same medications. So what may work for your parents may also work for you and vice versa. 

Talk with a provider about your current prescriptions, and whether the current psychotropic medication you’re taking is best for you. There are a wide variety of possibilities when it comes to treating mental health conditions with psychotropic medications

Table of contents

Which Drugs Are Psychotropic?

What Are the Five Main Types of Psychotropic Medications?

What Are Psychotropic Drugs Normally Prescribed for?

How Do Psychotropic Drugs Work?

What Is the Best Psychotropic Medication?

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Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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Tamiqua Jackson, PMHNP

Tamiqua Jackson is a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) and Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) in the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. Tamiqua has over 8 years of experience in advanced practice. She enjoys working with patients who may be experiencing depression, anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stress, sleep disorders, and other mental health issues that may affect everyday life. Tamiqua is compassionate and serves as a patient advocate.

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