Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium? (New York Times Sunday Review)

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lithium

The idea of putting a mind-altering drug in the drinking water is the stuff of sci-fi, terrorist plots and totalitarian governments. Considering the outcry that occurred when putting fluoride in the water was first proposed, one can only imagine the furor that would ensue if such a thing were ever suggested.

The debate, however, is moot. It’s a done deal. Mother Nature has already put a psychotropic drug in the drinking water, and that drug is lithium. Although this fact has been largely ignored for over half a century, it appears to have important medical implications.

Lithium is a naturally occurring element, not a molecule like most medications, and it is present in the United States, depending on the geographic area, at concentrations that can range widely, from undetectable to around .170 milligrams per liter. This amount is less than a thousandth of the minimum daily dose given for bipolar disorders and for depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants. Although it seems strange that the microscopic amounts of lithium found in groundwater could have any substantial medical impact, the more scientists look for such effects, the more they seem to discover. Evidence is slowly accumulating that relatively tiny doses of lithium can have beneficial effects. They appear to decrease suicide rates significantly and may even promote brain health and improve mood.

Yet despite the studies demonstrating the benefits of relatively high natural lithium levels present in the drinking water of certain communities, few seem to be aware of its potential. Intermittently, stories appear in the scientific journals and media, but they seem to have little traction in the medical community or with the general public.

When I recently attended a psychopharmacology course in which these lithium studies were reviewed, virtually none of the psychiatrists present had been aware of them.

The scientific story of lithium’s role in normal development and health began unfolding in the 1970s. Studies at that time found that animals that consumed diets with minimal lithium had higher mortality rates, as well as abnormalities of reproduction and behavior.

Researchers began to ask whether low levels of lithium might correlate with poor behavioral outcomes in humans. In 1990, a study was published looking at 27 Texas counties with a variety of lithium levels in their water. The authors discovered that people whose water had the least amount of lithium had significantly greater levels of suicide, homicide and rape than the people whose water had the higher levels of lithium. The group whose water had the highest lithium level had nearly 40 percent fewer suicides than that with the lowest lithium level.

Almost 20 years later, a Japanese study that looked at 18 municipalities with more than a million inhabitants over a five-year period confirmed the earlier study’s finding: Suicide rates were inversely correlated with the lithium content in the local water supply.

More recently, there have been corroborating studies in Greece and Austria.

Full Article (New York Times Sunday Review):http://nyti.ms/1s2hgzz

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