There’s A New Antidepressant In Town, And It’s Poisoning People

Tianeptine, an unapproved drug meant to treat depression, is causing opioid-like highs -- and poisonings.

yellow antidepressants on a blue background
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Tianeptine, an unapproved drug meant to treat depression, is causing opioid-like highs -- and poisonings.

While overdoses and serotonin syndrome can cause serious problems in those who take antidepressants, an unapproved antidepressant is causing an alarmingly high number of calls to poison control centers in the United States. The drug, a medication called tianeptine, is sold as an antidepressant in Latin America, Asia, and Europe. It has not been approved for use in the United States, and there’s a reason why.

The drug causes opioid-like highs, which has led many people to buy it instead of actual opioid drugs like fentanyl, codeine, hydrocodone, and heroin. However, it is not harmless in the slightest. According to Fox News, the drug has already been linked to two deaths in the United States. The deaths were caused by “tianeptine toxicity,” and occurred after the deceased bought the drug online.

Developed in France to treat depression and anxiety, the drug’s method of action was a mystery for decades. However, it was discovered that tianeptine interacts with the brain’s opioid receptors. This euphoric effect can cause relief from depression and anxiety symptoms, but it can also cause highs, addiction, and withdrawal.

In fact, those withdrawing from tianeptine experience many of the same symptoms as those withdrawing from opioid drugs. Considering the similarities between the two drugs, it’s no surprise that people are using it as a stand-in for actual opioids.

pills spilling from a prescription bottle
Over a third of the Poison Control calls reported that tianeptine was taken along with other drugs. Video_Creative / Shutterstock

Troubling side effects were reported, including confusion, tachycardia, and nausea/vomiting. When taken in unison with other drugs, tianeptine becomes even more dangerous.

Most commonly taken with this antidepressant is phenibut. Phenibut, developed in Russia as an anti-anxiety medication, has gained a following online for being a “happy drug.” According to Vice News, there are entire online forums dedicated to discussing drugs like tianeptine and phenibut, and both drugs are described as having “euphoregenic effects.”

Many agree that the U.S. crackdown on illegal opioids is causing others to seek out replacements.

“We are also seeing a shift away from the use of prescription opioids toward plant materials containing unrecognized opioids or to OTC products with potentially lethal opioid effects,” an FDA official wrote in a paper recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Tianeptine is the perfect substitute. Easily purchased online as a research chemical and diet supplement, it’s not hard to get your hands on. However, several studies and hundreds of poison control calls show that it’s just as dangerous as its illegal counterparts.