Lithium: a frequently overlooked mineral supplement

The issue here is that lithium has a terrible but undeserved reputation. At huge prescription doses, lithium remains the most effective way to control bipolar disorder. The fact that a natural mineral can be so effective is, in itself, a remarkable thing. However, such enormous doses – usually exceeding 900 mg of lithium carbonate – can be toxic and cause permanent kidney damage with long-term use, and this is where the bad reputation comes from.

At doses that are about or more than 1,000 times smaller, lithium is a natural trace mineral supplement with no known toxicity or other side effects. In fact, minute amounts of lithium occur naturally in our diet and, even though this mineral is not considered essential and there is no RDA for it, studies have shown that it plays an important role in human nutrition. According to one study, people with diets deficient in lithium have higher rates of hospital admission for a wide range of mental disorders (1). Other studies have correlated lithium deficiency with aggressive behaviors in both humans and animals (2).

More studies have looked at the benefits of low-dose lithium supplementation. In one double-blind study, a group of former drug users with a history of violent behavior were given either 400 mcg of lithium daily or a placebo. Only the group receiving lithium experienced steady improvements in moods (3). Another study found that doses of lithium as low as 50 mcg per day produced significant improvements in people suffering from depression (4).

In recent years, a new line of research has focused on other benefits of lithium, including its ability to protect brain cells from toxic damage. Particularly quinolinate, a viral by-product often found in organic acids tests of children with autism or ADHD and a known neurotoxin capable of causing brain cell death, is neutralized by lithium (5). It is now emerging that lithium can even promote the regeneration of healthy brain cells by activating genetic factors (6).

1. Dawson EB, Lithium in Biology and Medicine, VCH; 1991: 169-88,
also quoted in M. Werbach, MD, Nutritional Influences on Illness, p.164
2. Biol Trace Elem Res 1995; 48 (2): 131-9; and same journal 1992; 34 (2): 161-76
3. Biol Trace Elem Res 1994; 40 (1): 89-101
4. Nutr Perspectives January, 1988: 10-11
5. Biol Psychiatry 1999; 46 (7): 929-40
6. Lancet 2000; 356 (9237): 1241-2

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