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Just Another Teachin’ Tuesday: Lithium – “But it’s in batteries!?!?”

“How in the heck can something in a battery help stabilize my mood?” Good question, but for some 50 years lithium has been an efficacious treatment for mania and depression. Okay – what is it? And why does it work?

Well, lithium is an extremely light and soft silver-white metal that’s on the periodic table of elements. It’s symbol is Li, and its atomic number is 3. By the way, it’s highly reactive and flammable; and that’s why it appears naturally in compounds.

Fascinatingly enough, lithium serves no biological purpose of any significance in humans. But the lithium ion Li+ in the form of the lithium salts – lithium carbonate,  lithium citrate, and lithium orotate – do a heck of a number on depression and mania.

Hence, lithium – most often lithium carbonate – is used very frequently in the treatment of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. Of course, the potential for very serious side effects has to be monitored.

Now, how and why lithium works in the treatment of mood disorders is an interesting subject. It’s been traditionally believed the Li+ ion elevates levels of serotonin in the brain, as well as a serotonin metabolite. Of course, we know of serotonin’s positive impact on mood.

But the ion also reduces the activity of the catecholamines – the fight/flight neurotransmitters and hormones, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine – which are involved in the generation of mania.

There’s a recent bit of very interesting research which was conducted at the National Institute of Aging and the University of Colorado, Denver. It suggests lithium reduces brain inflammation by adjusting the metabolism of  the omega-3-fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). And it makes perfect sense that brain inflammation interferes with the brain’s ability to fight infection and injury.

By the way, fish oil, which contains DHA, is being touted as an adjunct in the treatment of assorted emotional and mental health disorders.

Well, brain inflammation is a major consideration because excess or unwanted presentations of it can damage brain cells. And that can contribute to, among other issues, emotional and mental health situations – like depression and mania.

In addition to this brain inflammation biz, the research noted the impact of lithium on levels of a metabolite of DHA in response to brain inflammation. It seems this metabolite is a precursor to the anti-inflammatory compounds known as the docosanoids. Aspirin achieves it’s anti-inflammatory efficacy by impacting the docosanoids.

So it seems lithium packs a powerful one-two wallop by both fighting brain inflammation, as well as enhancing chemicals that do the very same thing.

What think you chipur readers – especially those who are using lithium? Why not comment?

  • KarenD

    Lithium. I resisted taking this drug for years until I had to because nothing else was working. Lithium does work to even me out, but it also has some serious side effects. It is effecting my gastrointestinal system. It has caused me to gain ALOT of weight. It has given me the shakes in the past. And, there is such a fine line between the therapeutic amount and the toxic amount it can be scary. I have tried to stop taking it, but my psych said he would no longer be my dr if I did that. So now I take it in smaller doses than prescribed because I really feel like this stuff is killing me while helping manage my mood swings.

    • You know, though dealing with severe anxiety and moderate depression isn’t a picnic – I’ve always had a heart for those enduring bipolar disorder. As you well know, the efficacy of the meds is a crap-shoot; and, as you said, the monitoring, physical issues, and weight gain can be a major drag. Interesting – I was working with a client a while back whose psychiatrist said the very same thing – either you take lithium or I won’t treat you. Don’t know if you’ve heard of Kay Redfield Jamison. I wrote an article about her. Here’s the link. In my mind, she’s a fine example of someone enduring bipolar disorder who’s continued to move forward (though I’m sure it’s been tough as can be). Again, thanks for visiting chipur and commenting.