In 1817, Johan August Arfwedson discovered lithium in the mineral petalite. It is also found in several different types of ore and makes up about 0.002% of the Earth’s crust. Up until the 1990s, the U.S. produced most of the lithium on the global market.1
The primary way the metal is used in industry is to refine iron, copper, zinc and nickel. Lithium is also absorbed by plants from groundwater and soil, which allows the metal to be distributed to animals and humans. Historically, lithium salts and mineral water have been used to treat depression and gout.2
Lithium was revived in modern medicine in 1949 in a veteran’s hospital in Melbourne, Australia, where John Cade hypothesized it may help treat his manic patients.
Although some responded successfully, it came on the heels of a failed experiment to substitute sodium chloride with lithium chloride in people with congestive heart failure. In 2007, psychiatrist Gin Malhi of Melbourne characterized Cade’s research, saying:3
“John Cade’s discovery demonstrates the importance of clinical observation, the significance of reporting case findings, the value of being patient centered and the scientific benefit of an open and inquiring mind.”
Before Cade’s discovery in 1949, the makers of 7-Up added lithium citrate to their original recipe, which they called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda.” This was back in 1929; the drug remained a part of the soda until 1948 when the FDA put a stop to it.4 Interestingly, the drink was inaccurately marketed as “slenderizing,” since weight gain is a side effect of long-term use.
Lithium in the Water May Lower Rates of Suicide
In 2014, a psychiatrist from Weill Cornell Medical College wrote an article for The New York Times suggesting that lithium might be an essential trace element and public health may benefit by the addition of small amounts added to commonly consumed drinks such as soda and water. She wrote, “For the public health issue of suicide prevention alone, it seems imperative that such studies be conducted.”5
Hers was not the only suggestion. In 2015, a paper published in the journal International Clinical Psychopharmacology suggested something nearly identical. The researchers commented that “a substantial amount of data show that lithium significantly reduces mortality in patients with mood disorders.”6
After a review of the literature, they found “higher lithium levels in drinking water may be associated with reduced risk of suicide in the general population.”7 In a more recent study conducted at the University of Sussex, scientists found that “Naturally occurring lithium in public drinking water may have an antisuicidal effect …”8
The researchers collated data from around the world and compared suicide rates to the level of lithium in public drinking water.9 Because it’s a naturally occurring element and is extracted by weathering into the soil — and subsequently the groundwater — it can reach the public water supply.
The results from recent studies have also been used to associate lithium with a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative dementias. The study team was encouraged by the analysis of data that confirmed a relationship between lithium and drinking water and lower suicide rates.
Professor Alan Young from King’s College London commented on the level of lithium, pointing out that concentrations in drinking water are far lower than those used in medication. However, the “duration of exposure may be far longer, potentially starting at conception.”10 Professor Anjum Memon, lead author of the study from Brighton and Sussex Medical School, is suggesting whole community testing, saying:11
“Next steps might include testing this hypothesis by randomised community trials of lithium supplementation of the water supply, particularly in communities (or settings) with demonstrated high prevalence of mental health conditions, violent criminal behaviour, chronic substance abuse and risk of suicide.
This may provide further evidence to support the hypothesis that lithium could be used at the community level to reduce or combat the risk of these conditions.”
While naturally occurring lithium in public water supplies may be beneficial, artificially altering the composition of public drinking water more than is currently being done, may ultimately not have the desired outcome researchers and scientists anticipate or hope for. Added to which, it begs the question of how a team can get informed consent from an entire community.
Lithium: One Drug Used for Bipolar Disorders
Bipolar disorder was once known as manic depressive disorder or illness.12 All three types of bipolar disorder are marked by significant changes in energy and mood. Moods can swing from an extremely elevated or energized behavior which characterizes the manic episodes, to moods that are indifferent or hopeless that characterize depression.
Although most think of bipolar disorder as a condition in which a person experiences both manic and depressive periods, bipolar II disorder has a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic periods. This is a milder form of a manic episode. The third type is called cyclothymic disorder and is characterized by hypomania and periods of depression lasting for at least two years.
With proper diagnosis and treatment many people go on to live productive lives. However, bipolar disorder is often a lifelong illness and while many can be free of mood changes, others may suffer from lingering symptoms.
Professionals from the National Alliance on Mental Illness believe lithium may be helpful for people suffering with depression when it is prescribed off-label along with antidepressant medications.13 Lithium is a long-term treatment with some common side effects that include:
Nausea and vomiting
Changes in appetite
Increased thirst and urination
Long-term use has been linked with hypothyroidism and weight gain. Lithium does interact with other medications including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, certain blood pressure drugs, antidepressants and diuretics.
Although a popular medication, it works in only one-third of all patients. It wasn’t until 2017 that scientists reported they might have identified the mechanism responsible for lithium’s effectiveness.14
The hope is that by identifying the process lithium uses to reduce symptoms, researchers may be able to screen patients who have a higher potential for use and find other effective drugs for the two-thirds who don’t get relief from lithium.
In studying the individual’s response and mapping the pathway using pluripotent stem cells taken from bipolar patients, the researchers found a protein called CRMP2 that was inactive and associated with nerve cell communication. In patients who responded to lithium, the protein reactivated and returned to normal.
The researchers believe this suggests the mechanism is not necessarily genetic but may be a function of how the protein is regulated. Evan Snyder was the lead researcher on this study from Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute. He commented:15
“We realised that studying the lithium response could be used as a ‘molecular can-opener’ to unravel the molecular pathway of this complex disorder, that turns out not to be caused by a defect in a gene, but rather by the post-translational regulation (phosphorylation) of the product of a gene – in this case, CRMP2, an intracellular protein that regulates neural networks.
This ‘molecular can-opener’ approach – using a drug known to have a useful action without exactly knowing why – allowed us to examine and understand an underlying pathogenesis of bipolar disorder.”
Nearly One-Fifth Were Depressed or Anxious Pre-COVID-19
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18.1% of the U.S. population suffer from anxiety disorders.16 People with such a disorder are likely to also have depression.
In 2014, 6.7% of all adults in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode.17 This is a clinical diagnosis that goes well beyond feeling sad. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic morphed into something greater than a viral illness, waves of fear, uncertainty, social isolation and financial devastation have created the perfect storm for mental health issues.
A pandemic-triggered mental health crisis is expected. Data collected from late April 2020 forward are being used to analyze symptoms that happened in a person’s life over the previous seven days. From May 7 to May 12, 2020, 34.4% of 30- to 39-year-old adults reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression.18
In the 2020 American Psychological Association Stress in America survey, stress levels in adults rose a full point from 2019.19 This is the first significant rise since the association started collecting statistics in 2007.
Memon expressed concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic would have a significant effect on public mental health. He was encouraged by the results of the lithium study in light of current concerns:20
“The prevalence of mental health conditions and national suicide rates are increasing in many countries. Worldwide, over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and suicide is the leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24 years.
In these unprecedented times of COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent increase in the incidence of mental health conditions, accessing ways to improve community mental health and reduce the incidence of anxiety, depression and suicide is ever more important.”
Take Care With Mental Health
The results of the studies evaluating the effectiveness of lithium in public health water to reduce suicide rates lends further evidence that lithium may be an overlooked micronutrient many people do not consume enough of in their food. In low doses, lithium is important in many different biochemical processes in humans and animals.21
It helps regulate brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor, both crucial in neuronal function. In high doses, lithium is a medication and brings with it a long list of potential side effects. Since it is found in ground water and taken up by plants, it is important you get plenty of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet.
Seek out vegetables grown locally using regenerative farming techniques that potentially increase the number of nutrients in the plants and reduce or eliminate the amount of pesticides and toxins to which you’re exposed.
If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, it’s important to recognize these are normal reactions to the pandemic and you’re not alone. Research has suggested the novel threat of this pandemic may raise anxiety levels more than familiar threats, simply because the less familiar is shrouded in uncertainty.22
Fear is often perpetuated by misinformation that can feed panic, so it’s important to balance negative news with positive news and include information that helps you to take positive action. Make it a point to limit the amount of negative news you consume each day.
Another important strategy to reduce anxiety and control your thoughts is to use Emotional Freedom techniques (EFT). In the video below, Julie Schiffman demonstrates techniques to address anxiety about COVID-19.
Your physical health is also essential to supporting sound mental health. However, if you feel severely depressed or anxious, or if you’re feeling suicidal, reach out to family, friends or any of the available following suicide prevention services:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) — Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor
- Lifeline Crisis Chat — Chat online with a specialist who can provide emotional support, crisis intervention and suicide prevention services at www.crisischat.org