Can Lithium Boost Your Mental Health?

Except for a relatively few ingenious individuals, most of us have long distanced ourselves from trying to figure out the Periodic Table of Elements. However, such as our bodies are comprised of many materials original to the planet, we would do well to examine how these elements impact our health. Nature appears to have given us a naturally occurring element that provides a substantial benefit to mental health: Lithium.  Recent years have seen a renewed interest in both the supplement form of lithium - lithium orotate and the medication form of lithium - lithium carbonate. 

Use of lithium for mental health dates back to the mid-19th century. The United States first permitted use in the 1970’s spawning both lively debate and a plethora of research. Early controlled trials examined the effectiveness of lithium in treating mania and depression. While science is still unclear on exactly how lithium works in the brain, some researchers theorize that that it acts both pre-synaptically and post-synaptically - facilitating proper neurotransmitter function.

The element takes its name from “lithos” - the Greek word for stone, and can actually be found in small amounts in just about every kind of rock.  Today, Lithium is prescribed primarily for the treatment of bipolar disorder. Lithium is also used for chronic conditions like arthritis and headaches as well as diabetes and liver disease.  

While Lithium only appears in mere trace amounts in our groundwater, numerous studies have revealed a substantially positive effect of trace amounts of lithium on mood and overall brain health. In fact, a 1990 study in Texas found that areas with higher levels of lithium (70-100 mgc/L) in drinking water experienced fewer incidences of homicide, suicide, and rape than areas with little or no lithium in the water. Those findings have proven to be more than incidental as a five-year Japanese study confirmed the correlation. A subsequent series of studies revealed positive clinical and behavioral outcomes with higher lithium levels in local water supply.

Lithium has even proven to be a factor on the frontier of dementia. A recent Danish study uncovered that “exposure to higher long-term lithium levels in drinking water may be associated with a lower incidence of dementia.” With so many findings suggesting benefit of lithium for the brain, the question arises as to why low dose lithium is so little used in the psychiatric community. The answer may simply lie in the shroud of poor reputation and misperception. Mainstream psychiatrists may not be aware of the option to recommend low dose lithium, such as lithium orotate supplements, as they may only be familiar with the medication form of high dose lithium carbonate used in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Lithium orotate is seen as an alternative remedy and a naturopath is more likely to recommend it than a conventional medical doctor. 

Fortunately, awareness of the benefits of lithium is increasing in the medical community and doctors are becoming more interested and open to this treatment.  Lithium orotate use may be a supplement to consider for optimal mental health in the present and prevention of neurodegenerative conditions with aging. If you already take a lot of supplements, it is best to review your regimen with a professional and if you are mixing medications and supplements then please speak to a medical professional such as a psychiatrist or functional medicine doctor about your regimen.