MAO stands for monoamine oxidase, which is a substance in the body that breaks down certain chemicals (e.g., serotonin) responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells. An MAO inhibitor is a drug that blocks this activity. This increases the levels of these chemicals (e.g., serotonin) in the body.
MAO inhibitors are mainly used to treat depression, although one MAO inhibitor is used to treat Parkinson's disease. Many of the other drug treatments available for depression (e.g., citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, sertraline) work by increasing the levels of serotonin. Therefore, combining an MAO inhibitor with most antidepressants would cause a marked increase in serotonin levels in the body, potentially leading to serotonin syndrome. This is a rare, but potentially fatal, reaction that occurs when you take medications or supplements that cause high levels of serotonin to accumulate in the body. Symptoms may include shivering, sweating, diarrhea, muscle twitching, fever, irregular heartbeat, and seizures.
There are a number of over-the-counter (non-prescription) products that you should also use with caution if you're taking an MAO inhibitor, such as phenylephrine, a decongestant found in many cough and cold products, and St. John's Wort, a common herbal product used for mood. You should also be cautious eating foods that are high in tyramine, such as aged cheese and red wine.
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