There's a nutrient out there that plays an important role in your overall well-being, but has been somewhat forgotten in recent years. The third element on the periodic table of elements, now known to be essential, just may be the missing link for optimal health and wellness. Are you wondering what this mysterious nutrient is that quite possibly could have a profound effect on your general health and well-being? This nutrient is lithium. YES, lithium.
I know what you’re probably thinking: Lithium? As a biochemist and pharmacologist — and someone who's been immersed in the areas of health, wellness, and natural medicine for more than two decades now — I know all too well the societal stigma associated with lithium.
Let’s turn back time a bit. In my late teens, I was obsessed with health and nutrition, specifically nutritional biochemistry, in an effort to get to the bottom of some nagging health issues. I took a variety of supplements every day, including high-dose B-vitamins, trace minerals such as zinc and selenium, and ate a very healthy diet. I remember going into the health food store one day, seeing lithium orotate on the shelf, and thinking why would anyone need to take that? By that time, I'd read hundreds of books on health and nutrition, but not ONE discussed this mysterious trace mineral. So I ventured into the University of Arizona Science and Engineering Library, and began searching for information in the scientific texts on lithium. What I found was that since the 1970s, studies have shown that animals maintained on low-lithium diets had higher mortalities as well as reproductive and behavioral abnormalities.
In humans, defined lithium deficiency diseases have not yet been characterized. Though, interestingly enough, low lithium intake from local water supplies are associated with increased rates of suicides, homicides, and arrest rates for drug use and other crimes. It appears that when people have low or “functionally deficient” lithium intakes, they're simply less happy and potentially more agitated and reactive.
This is where the current research offers further support as to why low lithium intakes might lead to more violent events and general unrest. It's now known that folic acid and vitamin B12 both require sufficient levels of lithium for their utilization. As someone who has studied and practiced in this area for many years now, I believe this is one of the greatest discoveries in the realm of nutritional biochemistry and neurochemistry in the last several decades. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are key nutrients required for optimum brain function, and low levels of either can result in depression, irritability, altered mentation, poor cognitive performance, decreased mental and physical stamina, and a variety of neurological problems.
In his review article, Lithium: Occurrence, Dietary Intakes, Nutritional Essentiality, UCSD researcher GN Schrauzer concluded:
“Since vitamin B12 and folate also affect mood-associated parameters, the stimulation of the transport of these vitamins into brain cells by lithium may be cited as yet another mechanism of the anti-depressive, mood-elevating and anti-aggressive actions of lithium at nutritional dosage levels.”
In addition to its beneficial effects on folate and B12 metabolism, lithium has also been shown to have neuro-protective effects in cerebral ischemia, and may offer significant benefits to those with elevated mercury levels due to mercury exposure from fish and dental amalgams. Symptoms of mercury toxicity include irritability, depression, anxiety, sensitivity to stress, and emotional lability, which interestingly enough are similar to the proposed symptoms of lithium insufficiency in humans. The basis for this similarity most likely lies in the fact that by impairing glial cell function, mercury increases levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, in the brain — and lithium can have an inhibitory action on glutamate receptors.
As an essential trace mineral, lithium is NO different than copper, zinc or any other nutrient that we require in sufficient amounts for optimal health. Multivitamins typically contain 0.5-2 mg of copper and 10-30 mg of zinc, which are safe and beneficial amounts for both minerals. With all nutrients, if you take too much you’ll have adverse side-effects and eventual poisoning if the excessive intake is maintained. Like copper and zinc, lithium operates within a range of safety and effectiveness. In fact, if you compare the relative safety of the two (lithium versus copper), lithium's water solubility and ease of excretion actually makes it safer to take than copper, which tends to accumulate in the body, especially in the presence of zinc deficiency (very common these days). Lithium does not yet have an official RDA, but according to one of the world’s leading researchers on lithium, GN Schrauzer, Ph.D, “a provisional RDA for a 70 kg adult of 1,000 mcg (1 mg) per day is suggested.”
The take-home message here is, simply, ALL nutrients operate within a safe-range of intake, and the current scientific and clinical information on lithium suggests a safe and beneficial “nutritional” amount for most people is in the range of 1-5 mg per day. Available supplemental forms provide 5 mg of elemental lithium chelated either to orotic acid (naturally found in root vegetables, whey, and breast milk) or aspartic acid (an amino acid), but due to the superior bioavailability of the orotate form, that's the one I recommend to my clients. It’s important to keep in mind that, like many nutrients, extra amounts are often excreted and needed during times of increased stress, strenuous exercise, or illness. Focusing on nutrient-dense, fresh, whole foods rich in antioxidants and essential nutrients is especially important during these times.