Nutritional (Low-Dose) Lithium


  • A well-documented, information-packed, readable book
  • Low-dose lithium causes new brain cell growth, prevents Alzheimer’s
  • Dozens of other uses for low-dose lithium
  • Case report: low-dose lithium safety

Late last year, I was honored by James Greenblatt, MD, an assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, and Kayla Grossman,RN, an educator and yoga practitioner, to be asked to write a foreword for their book Nutritional Lithium: A Cinderella Story, subtitled The Untold Tale of the Mineral that Transforms Lives and Heals the Brain. They’ve done an exceptionally good job of documenting all of the capabilities of low-dose lithium described in their book. They don’t “overclaim,” being very careful to point out when the supporting research cited is “promising but incomplete.” The extensive footnote documentation contained in Nutritional Lithium is always important when introducing what for many of us is a “new” topic. Even with all the footnotes, they’ve made sure the book is very readable, explaining the science well for non-scientists.
The effects of low-dose lithium on our brains, as described in Nutritional Lithium, are numerous. Lithium stimulates the growth of brand new brain cells in adults! Lithium helps increase the numbers and improves the function of mitochondria (the tiny “energy engines” that fuel every cell) in brain cells as well as elsewhere in our bodies. Lithium protects existing brain cells in many ways. It helps balance neurotransmitters, decreases brain inflammation, helps transport B12 and folate into cells (including brain cells), protects against free radicals, inhibits a brain-damaging enzyme (for the technically inclined,the enzyme is called GSK-3, which also promotes cancer in many places in our bodies), supports the removal of excess tau protein and beta-amyloid (major factors in Alzheimer’s), and promotes growth of existing nerve cells as well as old ones.
Working in the ways just described (and likely others yet to be discovered), low-dose lithium can help control Parkinson’s disease symptoms, depression, as well as bipolar disease—all at those same low doses. Studies which were first done in Texas and were repeated around the world demonstrated that even the small amounts of lithium naturally found in drinking water (still very low doses) were associated with significantly lower suicide rates. (We hope physicians at the Veteran’s Administration read this book!) Also described is research done in prisons and elsewhere showing that lithium can decrease—sometimes dramatically—anger, aggression, and irritability, as well as improving impulse control.
And that’s not all! Lithium can reduce alcohol consumption and “alcoholic behavior.” Lithium helps significantly reduce alcoholic relapses. It’s been shown to reduce addictive gambling behavior, and to help against other addictions. Like zinc, lithium also helps anorexia nervosa; it may not be a coincidence that both minerals have been proven to raise levels of an important brain hormone (for the technically inclined, it’s BDNF). Lithium can lessen binge eating as well as symptoms of ADHD.
Going beyond the brain, Nutritional Lithium also gives us information about the use of lithium for fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, glaucoma, and cluster headaches. And even though one of the major points of this book is that lithium is effective at low, non-prescription quantities found in natural food stores, there’s a discussion of its safety.
Nutritional Lithium also contains good discussions of an often neglected aspect of effective psychiatric practice, nutrition! Dr. Greenblatt writes, “For psychiatrists to treat mental illness as exclusively psychological disorders fails to account for the brain’s physiological response to a shortage of essential nutrients. This response occurs regardless of culture, psychological traits, or family pressures. The malnourished brain must be restored with the nutrients it lacks.” For optimal mental health, psychology and biochemistry—which depends on nutrition—must be combined.
As Nutritional Lithium makes obvious, at present lithium is the #1 missing brain nutrient!
A Low-Dose Lithium Case History
Nutritional Lithium ends with eight case histories, all concerning the mental health effects of low-dose lithium. I’ll end this article with an accurate-as-possible recollection of another low-dose lithium case history from nearly forty years ago.
Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a twenty-one-year-old woman came to see me at Tahoma Clinic. She’d been in a few times previously as a teenager for relatively minor health problems; her parents had been in several times about issues that mostly traced back to the alcoholism they’d both suffered from since they were young (except when her mother was pregnant with her, she had been told).
She told me she wasn’t ill, but wanted to know if it would be all right for her to take the same amount of lithium her parents were each taking, once daily. However, she had told me at a prior visit that she had “never swallowed as much as one drop of alcohol in my whole lifetime,” motivated by what she’d seen it do to her parents themselves and to their marriage.
At that visit she’d also told me that her parents had been doing much better—although not perfectly—since starting on daily lithium. Her father wasn’t losing his temper as much, not yelling nearly as much, and was definitely less irritable. Her mother was even happy some of the time now, not depressed and weepy all the time as she’d been before. And no, they hadn’t stopped drinking alcohol, but the amount and frequency had both diminished significantly.
So why did she want to take lithium herself? Had she started drinking alcohol since her last visit? No, she quietly assured me, she hadn’t, and never would. So, why? Before answering, she sat upright in her chair, stared at me, and then asked, “Don’t I have the same genetics as my parents?” She was of course correct, couldn’t argue with that!
She continued to say that she’d observed her parents feeling better and getting along better since shortly after starting the lithium, and although her own behavior wasn’t—and never would be, she repeated—influenced by personal alcohol use, she thought she might feel better too if she took the same amount of lithium they did every day. Her parents had advised her to check with me, and so here she was.
We reviewed lithium safety first. Even though adverse effects were very unlikely if she used the same quantities her parents were using, why not do something that might significantly lower if not eliminate any chance of lithium causing her problems? She agreed that prevention was probably better than cure, and asked what that might be.
Dr. David Horrobin had taught us at a seminar that essential fatty acids would eliminate or reduce lithium toxicity.[i] Although Dr. Horrobin and his colleague Dr. Lieb had used safflower oil in a preliminary study, after studying essential fatty acids it appeared to me that flaxseed oil would be a better choice.
At different times in the years after Dr. Horrobin’s seminar, two severely bipolar individuals were referred to me by a psychiatrist who’d helped them keep their severe bipolar symptoms under control for several years with high-dose lithium. Then each had signs and symptoms of lithium toxicity appear, including tremor, nausea, and rising blood pressure. Excess protein was found in their urine.
But even a small reduction in lithium dose caused their bipolar symptoms to flare, so each wanted to stay with the higher doses of lithium. The psychiatrist referred them to me. Each was advised to take flaxseed oil, one tablespoonful thrice daily (along with vitamin E 400 IU twice daily), and for both individuals the lithium toxicity slowly went away in three to four weeks.
For her, large quantities of flaxseed oil itself were very likely not needed, and there was an alternative means of getting the same oil that many had told me was even tasty, ground flaxseed itself, two level tablespoonfuls daily. She agreed it would be easy to stir that into the oatmeal she liked to eat for breakfast
In subsequent years—it wasn’t known at that time—researchers have found that ground flaxseed also reduces risk of breast cancer, improves progesterone-to-estrogen ratios (which often lessens PMS), increases the percentage of ovulatory cycles, and even raises a woman’s testosterone levels slightly. But enough about ground flaxseed; back to lithium.
She didn’t return for nearly a year. There was definitely a change in her personality; she seemed more confident, and didn’t wait to be asked about what she had in mind for the visit. When we were done with that concern, she said she had something to tell me about herself that she hadn’t mentioned at any prior visit. Here is what she told me:
I never had any close friends when I was growing up. I thought it was because of my parents; before they started lithium, I didn’t want to be around them much either. But even after that, still no close friends. There were very few invitations to parties or to join clubs, and when all the other girls were old enough to have boyfriends, I didn’t until I was nineteen, and that lasted less than a month.
But since I started the lithium and (she smiled) ground flaxseed, everyone who knew me in high school says I’m not the same person. A few of the more outspoken ones asked me if I’d been having psychological counseling. I tell them no, I just made a decision about my life and let’s leave it at that. I’ve been invited to more parties in the last few months than in my entire time in high school.
I’ve decided to go to college, and I’ve gotten a job to earn money for it. I’ve met lots of people at the job, and one of them has been my boyfriend for six and a half months now! Now I understand what the other girls were talking about in the locker room in high school gym. My parents are amazed at the change that’s happened to me, so I tell them it’s all their fault for taking the lithium you suggested. The other reason I’m here is to thank you for doing that.
Which was very kind of her. . . .
Why We All Should Consider Low-Dose Lithium
Even if you don’t have any of the multitude of mental and non-mental health problems listed in Nutritional Lithium, there’s one very important reason we all should consider a low-dose lithium supplement—unless you live in one of the few areas where the water supply already contains lithium.
This very important reason is Alzheimer’s disease prevention. The overwhelming weight of research tells us that low-dose lithium will cut Alzheimer’s risk dramatically. If we add curcumin, or turmeric as a source of curcumin, and testosterone for men, estrogen for women (both as part of overall bioidentical hormone replacement), the risk of Alzheimer’s disease risk will be very, very small. (An organic-as-possible diet, exercise, and individualized supplementation are important for the best of health too, but most everyone reading Green Medicine knows that.)
Another Note about Low-Dose Lithium Safety
The “low doses” of lithium discussed in Nutritional Lithium are five to ten milligrams daily. Prescription doses of lithium carbonate are 300 milligrams (55 milligrams of which are lithium, the rest carbonate), and instructions are usually one capsule (very occasionally two capsules) three times daily. Even at the usual dose, that’s 165 milligrams of lithium itself daily—much, much more than is ever possible to consume from naturally occurring water sources.
Adverse effects from these “un-Natural” daily quantities are very possible, and can be found on-line by entering “lithium adverse effects” into any search engine. So far, no adverse effects have been reported from low-dose lithium, but I have seen early signs of kidney and parathyroid problems in a very, very few individuals who exceeded the quantities recommended by Dr. Greenblatt (and me). If low doses don’t work for you and you want to explore higher amounts, work with a physician skilled and knowledgeable in natural medicine who knows how to work with lithium. Also, remember Dr. Horrobin’s observations about preventing lithium adverse effect mentioned in the case history above.
Why You Should Consider Buying This Book
To be practical, it’s because the information packed into Nutritional Lithium isn’t available all in one place anywhere else, and you can (if you wish) use this information safely for yourself and your family with low-dose lithium, which is found in most natural food stores. (Just in case they don’t have it, which is increasingly unlikely, low-dose lithium is also available at compounding pharmacies, the Tahoma Clinic Dispensary, and online sources.)
If you’re a healthcare professional, definitely buy this book. It will help you help your patients even more than you’re doing now!
[i] Lieb, J. and Horrobin, D. F. (1981). “Treatment of lithium-induced tremor and familial essential tremor with essential fatty acids.” Progress In Lipid Research 20:535-7.

1 comment

  1. What are typical doses for low dose Li? 5 mg seems to be the standard supplement size.

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