One of the many ways lithium exerts its effects in humans and animals is by reducing brain cell death (for the technically inclined, apoptosis) when the cells are exposed to neurotoxins. In addition to the potential neuroprotective benefits of lithium in the treatment of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neuro-degenerative diseases, the ability to reduce cell death may make it an important mineral in the treatment of alcoholism.1
Many researchers have looked at the effects of alcohol in animals, particularly those occurring during foetal development. In animals, alcohol causes cell death during a phase of gestation that correlates with the last trimester in human pregnancies. When given to mice during this crucial phase of development alcohol leads to pathologic changes similar to those occurring in human foetal alcohol syndrome.2
When a human foetus is exposed to alcohol during the last trimester of pregnancy, neuronal cell death leads to mental retardation and a set of symptoms collectively known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), sometimes abbreviated as ‘foetal alcohol syndrome’.
Excess alcohol in adulthood causes neuro-degenerative changes in many abusers. Besides the lifestyle and broad social problems created by drinking too much, individuals who abuse alcohol risk loss of memory and more serious cognitive changes including actual brain damage. Excess alcohol can lead to a deficit of vitamin B1 (thiamine) causing a brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
The alcoholic brain on lithium
How might lithium be of benefit in the treatment of alcoholism? Lithium has been used for many years at high dosages for the treatment of mood-related issues, such as bipolar disorder. There is an extensive body of work on its effects in humans. Prior to 1980, there were clinical studies of lithium treatment of alcoholics. Many… but not all… researchers reported that lithium was helpful, although not curative, for alcoholics. But (you’ve heard this before) lithium use was gradually ‘forgotten’ in favour of patent medicines.
Fortunately, there’s been a revival of basic-science research concerning the effects of lithium in protecting brain cells against the – sometimes quite literal – ravages of too much alcohol. In one study, mice were assigned to groups being administered one of four protocols: some mice were injected with saline, some with lithium, some with alcohol (for the technically inclined, it was ethanol), and some with both alcohol and lithium… and then studied for the effects on the brain.
Lithium showed significant protective effects on the mice in the alcohol plus lithium group. (For the technically inclined, the protective effects were inhibition or reduction of protein kinase pathways associated with cell death).3
Additional studies have been able to demonstrate similar results showing that lithium protects brain cells from cell death from alcohol.4,5
In another recent animal study, researchers studied the effects of lithium given at the same time as alcohol in mice. Lithium reduced the damage to an area of the brain called the hippocampus and also protected the spatial recognition abilities of the mice as adults. (In humans, ‘protection of spatial recognition’ might translate into less drunken staggering!) Their conclusion was that lithium was able to reduce both the short-term and long-term neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the brain.6
Putting a lithium plan into action
For many years, I have recommended low dose lithium for alcoholics.7 If you drink heavily I typically suggest niacin, glutamine and other supplements to help you reduce your drinking. But, in addition, 10mg of lithium orotate used three times a day can be quite helpful to control cravings and mood.
If an individual is in recovery from alcoholism, 20mg of lithium orotate, three times a day is usually sufficient. (This amount is approximately equivalent to the lithium content of one prescription-sized capsule, still a low dose, but don’t forget to see page 7 about using lithium safely!) The net result of taking low-dose lithium is often reduction in the desire for alcohol, improvement in mood, and other positive benefits.
For direct blood relatives of alcoholics who are not alcoholic themselves, 10mg to 20mg of lithium orotate will often improve mood and attitude, even if no symptoms or mood disorders are actually diagnosed. Many, though not all, report improved focus and concentration and subtle shifts in mood.
And on a lighter note if you are only a ‘social drinker’, low dose lithium supplementation can help you too. Clinically (which means no controlled research, but clinical observation) many adults have told me that their occasional hangovers are more tolerable and significantly shorter in duration since they started taking 20mg of lithium daily, usually to reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s disease!Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
Nutrition & Healing
Volume 6, Issue 8 – August 2012
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