In this review, the essential trace mineral lithium will be addressed, its nutritional benefits, and the consequences of lithium deficiency in our society.
Lithium is the lightest of all minerals. It’s the 3rd element in the Periodic Table of Elements – with an atomic weight of 7 – in the same group as sodium and potassium. Like sodium and potassium, its true nature is that of an essential mineral required in small amounts for optimal health, NOT a drug [1-6].
The fact is, we need a little every day for its healing and protective benefits, and for our brain and nervous system to function properly. Unfortunately its true nature up until now has been largely masked and skewed by its use in high, toxic doses as a drug to suppress the nervous system.
A simple fact: taking any mineral (nutrient) at 100+ times the recommended daily amount can produce toxic effects. The RDA for copper is 2 mg per day, and taking just 5 times that amount (10 mg per day) can produce nausea, vomiting, and copper toxicity if taken on a daily basis. Taking 10 times the RDA (20 mg per day) would be intolerable for most individuals, and result in fairly rapid copper toxicity symptoms (e.g. abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and jaundice).
With respect to their “safe dosage windows” – lithium has a far wider, biologically compatible (non-toxic) window to navigate compared to copper and other essential minerals. Starting with the provisional RDA of 1 mg for lithium  with nutritional doses up to 20 mg per day (representing a 20x difference in the “low-dose supplemental range”) employed by functional medicine practitioners (ie. Wright, Nieper) for many years now – is very safe with virtually no adverse effects when taken in these small amounts (5-20 mg/d). The potential for adverse effects increases with the dosage, which applies to all nutrients.
It’s important to remember that the nutritional doses for lithium are approximately 10-60 times lower than when used as a drug.
LITHIUM, AN ESSENTIAL NUTRIENT
We’ve known for years that animals need lithium nutritionally, and when fed low lithium diets have higher mortalities as well as reproductive and behavioral abnormalities [1,11].
A 1992 study by Dr. Gerhard N. Schrauzer found that individuals with heart disease, learning disabilities, and incarcerated violent criminals had very low lithium levels, as measured through hair sample analysis . We also know that lower lithium intakes from water supplies are associated with increased rates of suicides, homicides and arrest rates for drug use and other crimes [8, 9]. It’s also known that in children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, lithium is often deficient, and when small doses of lithium are given with other neurosupportive nutrients (e.g. magnesium, zinc, B12, etc) that symptoms frequently improve .
Knowledge of the benefits of small, nutritional doses of lithium will soon be commonplace in the field of medicine, and is part of a paradigm shift that is currently taking place. For the past several decades, credible members of the allopathic, integrative, and functional medicine communities such as Drs. Jonathan Wright, Edward Group, and William Shaw have been utilizing this nutrient for its mood elevating, balancing, healing, and protective effects on the brain and nervous system.
In his article, Lithium – The Misunderstood Mineral – Wright states “A younger, healthier brain with just one small dose a day”. He goes on to say, “Studies have repeatedly shown that substantially lower amounts of lithium can significantly improve brain function (as reflected in behavior). The amounts of lithium I recommend for brain anti-aging range from 10 to 20 milligrams…daily. I’ve actually been recommending these amounts since the 1970s ."
In her 2012 article, Could You Have a Lithium Deficiency? – Harvard-trained, evolutionary psychiatrist, Dr. Emily Deans offers her professional assessment of this mineral nutrient:
“…lithium in pharmacologic doses has some terrible downsides. However, lithium is, in fact, an essential trace mineral, present in many water systems with some very beneficial effects in the brain.” She goes on to say, “I think it is quite plausible that since we evolved drinking fresh mineral water from the ground, our brains are designed to have a little bit of lithium on board, and its presence in trace amounts could credibly improve our behavior and reduce suicide ."
Dr. James Greenblatt (MD), a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine with 25 years of experience in nutrition and mental health in a recent talk titled, “The Top 5 Minerals for Cognition, Memory and Mood” includes lithium in the company of zinc and magnesium (all three modulate the excitatory NMDA receptor) in its benefits to brain health with the following words:
“Clinical research supports a crucial link between mineral status and mental health. Zinc, magnesium, and trace minerals such as lithium play indispensable roles in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the brain. These elements regulate emotions, thoughts, mood, sleep, and behavior by modulating neurotransmitters... In addition, they play a key role in the synthesis of nerve growth factors and hormones such as cortisol. Studies show that supplementation supports emotional well-being, cognitive function and brain health ."
He refers to lithium as a “naturally occurring, nootropic mineral”, which is any food, substance, or nutrient that increases intelligence, memory, and learning. In short, according to Dr. Greenblatt, “low-dose lithium works as a multifaceted tool in integrative health, offering beneficial effects on mood and behavior, as well as memory and cognition ."
He adds, “…lithium is needed to transport folate and vitamin B-12 into the brain . This common deficiency of lithium may be one of the reasons children with autism require such high doses of certain forms of these vitamins. Blood tests done at conventional medical laboratories measure lithium but are only useful to measure extremely high lithium levels associated with lithium drug therapy. Such tests are useless for the measurement of the very low lithium levels associated with nutritional deficiency ."
Shaw further asserts,
“The lithium values of some children with autism are in the lowest one percentile. Ironically, the use of highly purified water to prevent ingestion of toxic chemicals may have deprived pregnant women of trace amounts of lithium found in tap water needed for normal fetal brain development and this deficiency appears to be a significant autism risk factor. The nutritional use of lithium is completely safe. No safety assessments or blood tests need to be done for nutritional supplementation of lithium…."
Shaw cites the increase in purified water consumption, which removes trace amounts of lithium and other essential minerals along with fluoridated water (which binds to lithium making it biologically unavailable) as possible drivers for the increasing rates of autism seen over the last three decades .
LITHIUM AND DRUG ADDICTION
Alcoholism and drug addiction are serious issues that millions are affected by every day. Nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States . More than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems  and according to a 2006 statistic, alcohol misuse problems cost the US $223.5 billion . Alcohol contributes to over 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions, most notably alcohol dependence, liver cirrhosis, cancers, and injuries .
Small, nutritional doses of lithium have proven beneficial in treating alcoholism and drug addiction – possibly through the correction of an underlying lithium deficiency. Owing to its essentiality in human nutrition – low doses of lithium appear to have a “balancing” and normalizing effect on the brain and nervous system, promoting a greater sense of well being for the individual. Effects are likely a result of enhanced NMDA receptor modulation, increase in BDNF (which exercise also increases), reduction in oxidative stress, increased folate and B12 uptake and transport, and other nutritive effects in the body [2, 15, 24-27].
MINERAL DEPLETION IN OUR SOILS (AND BODIES)
As a population, we are starved for nutrients, especially essential minerals. Considering the importance of these minerals in thousands of biochemical reactions spanning energy production, electrolyte balance, hormone and immune regulation – along with promoting a healthy and balanced nervous system – this topic should be getting far more attention.
United States and UK Government statistics show a decline in trace minerals up to 76% in fruit and vegetables over the period from 1940 to 1991 [28-29].
In a 2007 review article in the journal Nutrition and Health, titled “The Mineral Depletion Of Foods Available To Us As A Nation (1940-2002)”, the author states, “The character, growing method, preparation, source and ultimate presentation of basic staples have changed significantly to the extent that trace elements and micronutrient contents have been severely depleted. Ongoing research clearly demonstrates a significant relationship between deficiencies in micronutrients and physical and mental ill health ."
GLYPHOSATE AND MINERAL DEPLETION
Through the years, minerals are taken up by crops, but inadequately returned to the soil. This has led to massive declines in a broad spectrum of essential minerals such as zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, and many others. Together with increasing use of toxic agricultural chemicals such as glyphosate (Roundup®) – mineral depletion has gotten worse. As a powerful chelating agent, glyphosate promotes deficiencies in a wide range of essential trace minerals by reducing mineral bioavailability to plants and animals [31, 32]. A 2013 article in Reuters titled, Heavy use of herbicide Roundup linked to health dangers-U.S. study – states, “In 2007, as much as 185 million pounds of glyphosate was used by U.S. farmers, double the amount used six years ago, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data ."
Along with glyphosate’s mineral-depleting effects, we know that fluoride – a known neurotoxin and mitochondrial poison [34-36] can bind to lithium forming an insoluble precipitate – decreasing its bioavailability to plants, animals, and humans .
Elevated fluoride exposure has been shown to induce oxidative stress and lower neuroprotective Bcl-2 levels  – two systems positively affected by lithium [18, 19]. It’s possible that lithium through increasing Bcl-2 levels, antioxidant effects, and the ability to bind fluoride (and vice versa) – in small, nutritional doses may afford some benefit against fluoride neurotoxicity. This is a topic that needs further investigation and discussion. It’s already known that increased levels of selenium and vitamin E – via a reduction in oxidative stress – afford a significant degree of protection against fluoride toxicity .
Since the advent of modern agriculture, mineral depletion of our soils has been on the rise. Harmful industrial chemicals such as glyphosate and fluoride, which pollute our food, air, and water bind to essential trace minerals (e.g. zinc, copper, iron, molybdenum, manganese, selenium, lithium) and further this depletion – creating widespread nutrient deficiencies in the population. Coupled to a plethora of environmental toxins (e.g. mercury, lead), food additives, and toxic household chemicals – these nutrient deficiencies are known to be a strong contributing factor in chronic disease.
Insufficient intake of just one nutrient such as selenium can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, cancer, infection, inflammation, and autoimmune thyroiditis [38, 39]. Couple that to other nutrient deficiencies and we have a real problem, and drugs and more medications that don’t address the cause are not the solution.
Just as we need small amounts of zinc, copper, molybdenum, selenium, and other nutrients for a strong immune system, energy, vitality, and greater resistance to stress and disease – small amounts of lithium are needed to keep our brain, organs, and nervous system running properly. They all serve vital functions in our bodies.
So, given that nutrient depletion is on the rise (and has been for years), and fluoride can bind to and decrease the bioavailability of lithium in both plants and animals, what are the implications of this on our health, and for the population at large?
Simply put, many. As a protective shield against environmental toxins – coupled with its ability to boost healing processes in the brain and body – from the growing research, it’s clear most would benefit from a little extra dose of this neuro-protective and brain-supportive nutrient.
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