When most people… who aren’t regular Nutrition & Healing readers… hear the word lithium, they automatically think of a possibly dangerous prescription drug for bipolar disease. But lithium is actually a naturally occurring mineral, found in trace amounts in all living things, including plankton, plants, and both vertebrate and invertebrate animals.
Lithium is found in the highest concentrations in water, so it’s no surprise that marine animals have somewhat higher levels of this mineral than terrestrial animals. It’s also found naturally in our food supply in low amounts, primarily in grains and vegetables. Amounts of lithium vary considerably from community to community, however, with some surprising effects on health.
Because the lithium ion (the element lithium ‘all by itself’, not associated or bound to any other molecule) is known to lead to neurotransmitter changes in the brain through its interactions with the sodium ion, it’s traditionally been used to treat disorders that are linked to neurotransmitter disruption.1 High-dose prescription lithium carbonate has been used since 1949 to treat bipolar disorder and other psychiatric illnesses. At high doses, lithium has a very narrow margin of safety and needs regular monitoring.
Lithium may put more LIFE into your lifespan!
By 2003, many of lithium’s functions in human health had been discovered (see ‘The many benefits of lithium’ on page 3). Of course, research and clinical experience continues. A recent (2011) Japanese publication analysed mortality data from 1,206,174 individuals living in the Oita Prefecture, and found an inverse correlation between the death rate and varying levels of low-level lithium in the tap water. In other words, the higher the lithium levels in the tap water were, the less people died, and the lower the lithium levels in the tap water were, the more people died.2 The levels of lithium in the Oita prefecture were measurable, but really low: 0.7mcg to 59mcg per litre. Fifty-nine micrograms per litre translates to 59 parts per trillion!
Reading this study, I learned (surprise!) that a specific type of roundworm (for the technically inclined, ‘Caenorhabditis elegans’) is a ‘model organism for anti-aging studies.’ Previous work by other researchers with ‘higher than nutritional’ quantities of lithium (5 millimoles per litre, still really small) had shown that lithium significantly extends the lifespan of this ‘model organism’.
In this study, the roundworms were exposed to very small amounts of lithium… 10 micromoles per litre of water (1 micromole = .001 millimole) – a tiny, tiny amount, but at the upper end of the range of lithium found in various Oita Prefecture tap waters. Even this miniscule amount significantly extended the lifespan of the roundworm.
In numerous animal studies, conducted from the 1970s through the 1990s, other researchers showed that too little lithium in the diet is associated with an increased risk of mortality. Rats and goats deprived of lithium in animal studies died earlier and developed changes in behavioural and reproductive traits.3
Confirming earlier observations about lithium and suicide reduction, other researchers examining Oita Prefecture observed reduced risk of suicide when lithium was found in the drinking water, even at very low levels.4 As you may have read in 2003, other observational studies in humans have found a higher risk of violent and criminal behaviour in communities in which lithium levels are low, including an increased likelihood of homicide and drug use and higher rates of suicide.5
Lithium also appears to be necessary for the proper gestational development of human infants. During the early months of pregnancy, lithium levels of embryos are particularly high. Evidence suggests it could be an essential nutrient, with a minimum intake of 1,000mcg (1mg) a day necessary for proper physiological function and development for the average 70-kg adult.3
Providing get-up-and-go on a cellular level
Mitochondria are the ‘energy engines’ found in every cell in our bodies. Mitochondria make ‘ATP’ (for the technically inclined, adenosine triphosphate) which provides over 90 per cent of the total energy used by our cells. So possibly the most exciting new area of lithium research since 2003 has been the discovery that lithium stimulates the activity and total number of mitochondria, and protects those mitochondria against toxicity.
In 2006, researchers reported that lithium stimulated the metabolic activity of goldfish liver cell mitochondria.6 In 2007, other researchers found that lithium increased ‘mitochondrial biogenesis’ (in English, the production of new mitochondria) which resulted in increased ATP production in bovine aortic endothelial cells.7 Endothelial cells are the inner lining cells of every artery and vein in our bodies.
In 2009, one research report found that lithium stimulated mitochondrial ‘oxidative phosphorylation’… a process involved in the production of the energy molecule, ATP… in human brain cells.8 A second group of researchers reported that “chronic treatment with lithium… enhanced mitochondrial function” and that “long-term treatment with lithium… protected against methamphetamine-induced toxicity at the mitochondrial level.” [For the technically inclined, several mechanisms of action were documented, including that lithium “prevented the methamphetamine-induced reduction of mitochondrial cytochrome c, the mitochondrial anti-apoptotic Bcl-2/Bax ratio, and mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase (COX) activity.”]9
Although it’s too early to say for certain, since these lithium effects on mitochondria were found in goldfish liver, bovine endothelial cells, and human brain cells, it’s very likely that this is a universal action of lithium on mitochondria everywhere they’re found: in every human, animal and plant cell! As mitochondria are absolutely necessary to life, if this were lithium’s only beneficial effect, instead of one of literally dozens, supplementation would already be worth considering.
Reversing cognitive decline by reducing aluminium
Lithium can be used in low doses (up to 20mg daily) as a dietary supplement in the form of lithium orotate or lithium aspartate. Many potential health benefits have been suggested for the use of low-dose lithium. One of its most important benefits may be its use as a tool for preventing – or reducing the risk of developing – the neurodegenerative changes associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Individuals with cognitive decline are often found to have accumulated aluminium in the brain. Lithium orotate has the ability to pull aluminium out of the tissues so that it can be removed from the body. While aluminium’s role in Alzheimer’s disease is still unknown, many have speculated that aluminium toxicity is a factor in its development.
In 2003, you may have read about a year-2000 Lancet report that first described an increase in brain ‘grey matter’ (remember Hercule Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’?) following the use of lithium.10 This study used MRI measurement of brain volume, and found up to a 3 per cent increase in just four weeks, a significant improvement. (That’s the research that got me started on low-dose lithium, as I can use all the new brain cells I can get!)
In 2009, many of the same researchers reported a four-week follow-up study that achieved similar impressive increases in grey matter in the brains of bipolar patients.11
Another significant study of lithium’s effects on grey matter volume involved 22 individuals who had never been treated with lithium and had been off any patent medicines at least two months prior to the study. In this study, research volunteers were randomly assigned to be treated with either lithium or valproic acid (a patent medicine used to treat bipolar disease and seizures).
They were given MRI brain scans at intervals throughout the 16 weeks of the research study. The brain volume increasing effects of lithium peaked at 10 to 12 weeks of treatment and remained high until the end of the study.12 Valproic acid, however, caused no increase in brain volume at all.
Driving away dementia and Alzheimer’s
Taking lithium for even a short time seems to confer protective benefits for those at higher risk of dementia. In a 10-year Danish study, individuals at high risk of dementia who actually took the lithium prescribed for them had no more dementia at the end of 10 years than the general Danish population after those 10 years. Another group of individuals at higher risk of dementia who took no lithium ended up with significantly more dementia than the population in general.13
Two years later, the same research group reported more data from that 10-year study. This time they looked at the actual occurrence of dementia among over 4,000 sufferers of bipolar disorder. Almost exactly half had been treated with lithium, and the other half with other patent medicines, but no lithium. Among the half who took two or more lithium prescriptions, the incidence of dementia was significantly less than among the half who did not.14
In fact, there’s so much evidence that lithium can reduce Alzheimer’s risk that the following titles have appeared in relatively recent medical journal articles”15,16,17
“Lithium: a novel treatment for Alzheimer’s disease?” (2007)
“Lithium, a potential protective drug in Alzheimer’s disease.” (2008)
“Does lithium prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?”(2012)
If you’re not using low-dose lithium already as part of your anti-ageing programme, maybe it’s time to think it over again. Reduction of Alzheimer’s risk and very likely increased longevity are only two of the ever increasing, research-backed benefits of low-dose lithium being reported. And there’s practically no opposing research. Since low-dose lithium is safe, and means of keeping it even safer are known (see article above), maybe it’s time to start?Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
Nutrition & Healing
Volume 6, Issue 8 – August 2012
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.