Low-dose lithium may help prevent Alzheimer’s…calm chronic irritability and anger…and ease depression.

Wait a second, you say to yourself—isn’t lithium a serious drug for psychiatric conditions like bipolar disorder? Yes, in high doses of 150 mg to 1,800 mg. But in very low doses (say, 1 mg to 5 mg), lithium is a nutritional treatment, uniquely effective for a range of problems. Here’s what you need to know…

ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE

It’s becoming widely accepted by scientists that the neurochemical changes that lead to Alzheimer’s develop over a period of decades—and that prevention is the goal.

In my medical opinion, lithium may be the most effective preventive agent. Research is ongoing, but here are some key studies that support that statement…

• Low-dose lithium helps lower the risk for Alzheimer’s. A Brazilian study published in British Journal of Psychiatry involved 41 seniors with mild cognitive impairment, the memory loss and mental decline that often precedes Alzheimer’s. Half were given low-dose lithium and half, a placebo. After one year, more of the people taking lithium had no mental decline, better memory, more focus and clearer thinking. Just 19% of those on lithium developed Alzheimer’s compared with 35% in the placebo group.

• Low-dose lithium helps treat Alzheimer’s. In another study, published in Current Alzheimer Research, 94 people with mild-to–moderate Alzheimer’s were similarly divided into two groups. The lithium group had no cognitive decline during the 15 months of the study, while mental decline progressed by 20% in the placebo group.

• Lithium improves sleep and eases agitation and psychosis. In a case study report on three Alzheimer’s patients with these symptoms, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center found that prescribing low-dose lithium led to dramatic changes in just two weeks—a normal sleep cycle and a marked decrease in symptoms.

HOW IT HELPS: Lithium is a GSK-3 inhibitor—that means it blocks the enzyme GSK-3 to, in turn, stop the accumulation of plaques (beta-amyloid) and tangles, the changes that signal the development and advance of Alzheimer’s. It improves the connections between neurons, triggers the growth of new neurons and boosts a protein that stops neurons from dying.

Lithium also protects against brain inflammation and oxidation and increases serotonin, which regulates mood and behavior.

IRRITABILITY AND ANGER

Because it improves problems with impulse control, nutritional lithium has a uniquely calming effect, demonstrated in research involving people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and published in Journal of Traumatic Stress.

DEPRESSION AND SUICIDE

Lithium may be an effective way to combat the rise in suicide. Research done around the world has found that the lower the levels of lithium in the water and soil (it’s a naturally occurring trace element), the higher the rate of suicide.

A study published in Journal of Psychiatric Research compared the suicide rate in 226 Texas counties with 3,123 lithium samples from the public water supply. Finding: Lower suicide rates were linked to higher lithium levels in the water.

Research done in Lithuania and published in Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology found the same was true for men, in particular, and suggested that lithium may decrease suicide risk, which is two to four times higher among men than women.

BIPOLAR DISORDER

Pharmaceutical lithium is an effective treatment for bipolar disorder, but high doses can cause hand tremors, increased thirst, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal distress and even kidney disease. Low-dose lithium may produce positive results…without the health problems.

In fact, research published in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine found that personalized dosing at lower levels than commonly prescribed can be helpful without causing the side effects of the typical prescription dose.

HOW TO USE LITHIUM

Besides drinking water, naturally occurring lithium is in vegetables, grains, eggs and milk, but you can’t reliably get enough lithium from your diet to make a symptom-controlling difference.

MY ADVICE: I recommend 2.5 mg of over-the-counter lithium (see below) daily for prevention of cognitive decline or for chronic irritability…and 2.5 mg to 5 mg if you have symptoms of cognitive decline.

Also: If you have a personal or family history of bipolar disorder, substance abuse, suicide (or suicide attempts) or use prescription medication, see a physician before taking any lithium on your own.

Caution: Thyroid disorders and kidney disease can be caused by pharmaceutical lithium. If you have any health problem involving the thyroid or kidneys, talk to your doctor before using any lithium.

THE RIGHT LITHIUM…

For low-dose nutritional lithium, look for lithium orotate or lithium citrate, available over-the-counter. Avoid lithium aspartate, which can cause neurons to transmit impulses at a rapid rate and trigger headaches and brain inflammation in some people.