Lithium is a trace mineral that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s not included in most multivitamins. There hasn’t been a great deal of research historically into its effects in the body. It’s known best not as a mineral, but as a high dose pharmaceutical for the treatment of Bipolar Disorder. Prescription lithium, generally dosed between 150-600 mg, carries potential side effects—particularly damage to the kidneys and the thyroid.
But trace lithium is another story.
Where Lithium Comes From
Lithium is the third element on the periodic table, after hydrogen and helium, and it’s a huge component of rocks, soil, and water. Because of this, it concentrates in our food and water supplies, and we ingest between 0.65 to 3 mg of it per day.
Deficiencies in these trace amounts lead to problems with growth, development, and mental/emotional disturbances.
I suspect that some of the reason for this has to do with how lithium interacts with the thyroid: while high doses of lithium suppress many aspects of thyroid function, it does enhance the effect of the particular deiodinase enzyme which converts T4 to T3 in the prefrontal cortex. (The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain most active in decision making and executive function.) This at least implies some of the reason why it is helpful for Bipolar Disorder.
Lithium and Mood
But Lithium has broader effects than just in Bipolar treatment. This study shows that micro-doses of lithium given to former heroin and crystal meth users with a history of violent behavior stabilized and improved mood.
Likewise, in this study, the addition of trace amounts of lithium to drinking water decreased incidences of both violent crime and suicide.
Lithium and Excitotoxicity
Some of this effect may also have had to do with lithium’s protective effect on neurons against excitotoxicity.
This study shows that in the presence of neurotoxins, nutritional doses of lithium help to prevent seizures and neuron cell death.
Lithium and Alzheimer’s
Nutritional doses of lithium are currently being studied as a novel treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease as well. Here’s why.
An enzyme called glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3) in the brain is important in the formation of new memories. In Alzheimer’s, GSK-3 is actually overactive, triggering activation of the amyloid-B and tau proteins associated with the neurofibrillary tangles classic of Alzheimer’s Disease. These tangles disrupt normal brain function, leading to memory loss.
Lithium inhibits GSK-3, disrupting the process. This not only protects the brain from the development of these changes, it’s been shown to actually reverse some of them as well. Lithium encourages production of proteins that help to stimulate neurological growth and repair. This study from 2013 shows that Alzheimer’s patients given just 300 mcg of lithium over 15 months showed cognitive improvement in as soon as three months, and many continued to improve over the course of the trial.
The best way I know of to test lithium levels is via hair analysis, as it shows how much lithium gets inside the cells. Blood level reference ranges reflect levels from treatment with the much higher dose of the pharmaceutical version, so these are not sensitive enough to pick up a nutritional deficiency.
If low lithium levels in hair analysis correlate with particularly neurological symptoms, nutritional treatment certainly makes sense.