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Show 1118: What You Should Know About Lithium

In this episode for broadcast on April 21, 2018, learn how low-dose lithium may help treat mental illness, and how bipolar disorder can disrupt everyday life. How does lithium help?
Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH
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What You Should Know About Lithium

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Lithium rich water from hot springs such as those at Lithia Springs, GA, have long been sought after for their healing properties. This element was used for decades to treat some forms of mental illness, but high doses can be dangerous. As a result, this treatment fell out of favor although it can be effective for problems such as bipolar disorder.

Low-Dose Lithium:

Some psychiatrists are resurrecting the use of lithium to treat mental illness. They are prescribing low-dose lithium for depression and attention disorders as well as for bipolar disorder. What kind of results do they get? How does lithium compare to newer medications? Find out what a patient should know before agreeing to use low-dose lithium.

Pros and Cons of Lithium:

Jaime Lowe has intimate experience with lithium. She developed bipolar disorder as an adolescent. Lithium at standard doses was the medication that helped stabilize her life, but it also wrecked her kidneys.

She became fascinated with the compound and dug deep into its story. She even traveled to a famous place in Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni, where it is mined. Find out what it feels like to experience a bipolar episode and how lithium helped Ms. Lowe.

Learn More:

You can read what we have written previously about this medication here. The New York Times article is here. Recent scientific articles have been published in Neuropsychopharmacology, April 2018; Expert Opinion on Drug Metabolism & Toxicology, Nov. 2017; Bipolar Disorders, Nov. 2017; and Bipolar Disorders, Nov. 2017 for the study on drinking water.

This Week’s Guests:

Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH, is an academic psychiatrist specializing in mood disorders, depression and bipolar illness. He is editor of a monthly newsletter, The Psychiatry Letter (www.psychiatryletter.org). Dr. Ghaemi is professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where he directs the Mood Disorders Program. He is also a Clinical Lecturer at Harvard Medical School and teaches at the Cambridge Health Alliance. The photograph of Dr. Ghaemi was taken by Martha Stewart. His website is http://www.nassirghaemi.com.

Jaime Lowe is a writer living in Brooklyn and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times magazine. She has also written for New York magazine, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Maxim, Gawker, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and ESPN.com.  Lowe is the author of two books: Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB, a biography of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and most recently Mental: Lithium, Love and Losing My Mind.

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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I am unable to play the podcast (it’s April 27th 2018). I’ve tried it in two different browsers (one of which I normally listen to podcasts that I’m unable to catch on the radio).

Is anyone else having an issue.

This does not play

I tried several times on May 1 to listen and the podcast won’t play.

Joe — I’d like to see the research you found. For a journalistic report, I found this New York Times article, which I share with people when I tell them about my experience: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/opinion/sunday/should-we-all-take-a-bit-of-lithium.html. I aso found this from Jonathan Wright: http://tahomaclinic.com/2010/05/lithium-the-misunderstood-mineral-part-1/. (As far as I can tell, there is no part 2.)

I read about Lithium and it’s effectiveness when I was a Psychology student many years ago. I also learned that the main reason it fell out of favor was because it was inexpensive. Other medications, such as Valium became more popular .

I have been taking Memory Protect from Life Extension for over a year (when it was first introduced). It is composed of a low dose of lithium (300 mcg) and colostrinin (100 mcg). My memory was not too bad, but I believe it has improved since Memory Protect. I also use a supplement called Cognitex (also from Life Extension) for memory.

Perhaps the combination of the two supplements has made a difference. No way to know, unless I discontinue one for a few months and then do the same with the other. My blood work is good. No sign of liver disfunction.

Does anyone else have experience with Memory Protect?

Perhaps I can ease the fear of lithium (slow release).
My psychiatrist has prescribed a dosage of 600 mg of lithium which I have taken for 30 years with no ill effects save for minor thyroid suppression.

My son and I suffer from what I suspect to be some sort of familialy linked chronic depression, which in both cases can or has led to alcohol abuse. We both take the garden variety anti-depressants. We, of course, are open to any suggestions. What do you have ?

Both guests were easy to understand; even Dr. telling am’t Li, how adjust doses, how to buy.
And I liked Jamie”s reflection, ” I feel connected to it (Li)”.

I’m a retired neuropsychiatrist with 41 years clinical experience.

The mechanism of action model that I used, having an undergraduate degree in chemistry, is based on its ionization: 1+. It is in the same column in the periodic table as Na+ and K+, Li+.

Clinically, sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) balance were obviously associated with Li+. One of my med school mentors (Lowell Hokin) was an expert in the function of the sodium-potassium ATP transferase pump, which is fundamental to neuronal discharge and activity of our nervous system. Lithium counterbalances Na+ and K+ in controlling the activity of the ATP transferase pump, neuronal discharge (membrane potential), and, thus, arousal level.

While working a staff psychiatrist and clinical director on the mood disorders unit at Ga Regional Hospital in Savannah, my friends and I would visit a favorite local coffee house, only to realize that the hour was late and that we needed to chill and go home to sleep. So, we drank a bottle of salty Lithia Springs Mineral Water, went home, and slept like babies.

As a psychiatrist, I frequently used low dose lithium in a bipolar treatment regime in order to limit the potential for thyroid suppression, kidney damage, weight gain, and tremor: 150-300mgm HS (hour of sleep). I rarely recommended doses over 300mgm t.i.d. (three times a day).

Health food stores sell OTC lithium pills with 10mgm doses. Your wonderful expert from Boston seems to have a very limited knowledge and experience with lithium in clinical practice. Lamictal (lamotragine) was my go-to bipolar med but had to be started very carefully to prevent a potential adverse skin reaction. It has mood stabilizing and anti-depressant activity, just as lithium, but without the toxicity.

I am publishing my book on stress, “Stress R Us”, on Amazon as a print-on-demand item. I’d love to discuss it with you folks on your program. Best wishes and thanks for your efforts on The People’s Pharmacy! Greeley Miklashek, MD (retired).

If we use a water filter like Brita will it remove Lithium from the tap water?

It’s terrible…to think that all I’ve suffered and all the suffering I’ve caused might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.
-Robert L.

I took Lithium a few years ago, and it helped lift my depression very quickly. It was likely a therapeutic dose higher than Judy’s. I didn’t experience significant side effects except:

After a few months, my hair started falling out. A LOT of hair.
My blood work was normal, so I apparently didn’t experience toxicity and kidney damage, but I switched to an antidepressant. Antidepressants have so many unpleasant side effects.

I read in an article somewhere that in areas where lithium naturally occurs in the water supply, there are fewer mental health difficulties and/or suicides. I don’t recall all the details of that article.

Judy’s story fascinated me too. I’m going to share it with my doctor.

Are we talking about Lithium Orotate or Lithium Carbonate here??

Dr. Jonathan Wright, medical director of the Tacoma, Washington Clinic and Alternative Health Guru known internationally has for years recommended low-dose lithium orotate or lithium aspartate (20 mg) daily for brain health.

I was hoping you’d have something on lithium. I read about low-dose lithium a few months ago. The article said it could help prevent dementia and improve memory. So being old, with the usual forgetting where I put things and all that, I started taking 5 mg a day, a very low dose. To my amazement, after just a few days I found myself free of the chronic fatigue that had plagued me for over a year after I had shingles. I haven’t seen this kind of result mentioned in any of the articles I found. I thought I was going to have to live the rest of my life at 25 percent energy, so it feels like lithium saved my life, or 75 percent of it anyway.


This is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing your story. We actually located some cool research to support your experience.

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