Are You Lithium Deficient?

Lithium is most commonly known for its role in lithium batteries and as a prescription mood stabilizer for people with bipolar disorder, but did you know that lithium is an essential micronutrient? Yep, it is. The body and brain don’t work very well when lithium is deficient. And what’s more, YOU may not have enough of it.
James Greenblatt, MD, psychiatrist and author of a book on nutritional lithium states:

James Greenblatt, MD“after twenty six years of experience, the single intervention I believe that has the most significant effect on the [mental] health of my patients is nutritional lithium.”

Could lithium deficiency be a root cause of your concerns?

What Lithium Does

Micro-doses of lithium can lift, stabilize, enhance, and/or calm mood in anyone that doesn’t have enough of this essential micronutrient in their body and brain. People with irritability in any form almost always benefit from supplemental lithium, but the benefits of lithium help people with all sorts of mental or emotional concerns. Why? Because lithium normalizes and improves neuronal activity in various ways.

  • Lithium helps people with anger problems and irritability
  • Lithium helps people with ADD, ADHD, or other attention problems
  • Lithium helps people with anxiety
  • Lithium helps people with depression
  • Lithium helps people with bipolar disorder
  • Lithium helps people with addictions or substance abuse
  • Lithium helps people with eating disorders
  • Lithium helps people with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s
  • Lithium is also used for Lyme disease, headache, and more

How do you know if you need more lithium?

Some people, through a combination of good genes, good health, and high lithium levels in their drinking water, have plenty of lithium for their brains. Many of us, however, don’t have enough. Your potential need for lithium is indicated by brain and mood symptoms, your family history, and laboratory testing. These are discussed below.

Symptomatic Indicators of Lithium Need

If you are struggling with anything from anger, irritability, low mood, depression, bipolar disorder, addictions, substance abuse, eating disorders, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, or other mood or brain problems, you may want to get evaluated for lithium levels (more below).

Family History Indicators of Lithium Need

Whether or not you have specific mental or emotional concerns, if you have a family member with a psychiatric illness such as depression, schizophrenia, autism, bipolar, etc, your mood may still benefit greatly from lithium supplementation. Again, you should test your levels to confirm your need (more below).

Laboratory Analysis of Your Levels

The most reliable way to measure lithium levels in your body is by getting a Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis (HTMA). Unlike some other metals, lithium is found in hair tissue in amounts consistently correlative of body levels, so hair testing is a reliable way to measure lithium.

If you’re not taking lithium, blood testing for lithium levels is useless. However, if you’re on prescription lithium, your doctor needs to take periodic blood tests to make sure your blood level of lithium is not getting too high.

Nutritional doses of lithium have never shown negative side effects; on the contrary, supplementary lithium is often beneficial for people struggling with even minor mood or brain health problems. But before you run out and start taking lithium, realize that mega doses can be harmful and even lethal. It is incredibly important you don’t overdose!

How Lithium Works

Even though lithium is the most effective mood stabilizer available, it hasn’t been studied as much as pharmaceutical mood stabilizing drugs because pharmaceutical companies can’t make money with it (it’s a natural mineral, so it’s not patentable). Still, researchers have uncovered some exciting things lithium does at the molecular and cellular levels.

Lithium can:

  • Normalize the circadian rhythm
  • Increase BDNF and neuroplasticity (always a good thing).
  • Improve brain cells’ ability to utilize methylfolate and methyl-B12, essential cofactors for creating the mood-enhancing and brain-boosting neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
  • Decrease damage to neurons
  • Remove and slow down creation of Alzheimer’s tangles in brain tissue.
  • Decrease stress-induced neuronal damage.

Important Facts You Should Know about Lithium

  1. If you’re low in lithium, the benefits of low dose nutritional lithium far outweigh the risk. Work with a qualified nutritional, functional, or integrative health practitioner for monitoring and correct dosing.
  2. Nutritional lithium dosing (which I’m writing about here) is given in the form of lithium orotate and is generally between 1mg–30mg daily. Prescription lithium, on the other hand, is prescribed by a health professional, is generally for bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, or major depression, and is given in the form of lithium carbonate at much higher doses (in the range of 600mg to 1800mg or even more).
  3. Lithium (nutritional or prescription) should always be taken with omega–3 and omega–6 fatty acids, zinc, and vitamin E to maximize benefits and reduce side effects. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that everything (especially the brain) works better with a healthier diet.
  4. Prescription lithium is in the class of drugs called mood stabilizers. It is prescribed as Lithobid, Lithane, or Eskalith. Other (very different) drugs used as mood stabilizers are Valproic Acid (Depakote or Valproate), Carbamazepine (Tegretol), Lamotrigine (Lamictal), and Dextromethorphan / Quinidine (Nuedexta).
  5. Your most common source of lithium is through drinking water. However, different water supplies vary greatly in their amounts of lithium. Additionally, reverse osmosis removes all minerals, including lithium, raising concerns of lithium insufficiency in those drinking reverse osmosis water.
  6. Food may contain lithium, but again—the levels are highly variable and it is impossible to know for sure how much is in your food.
  7. If you are hypothyroid or your thyroid is otherwise struggling, address your thyroid health first before supplementing with lithium.
  8. Natural spring waters with high levels of lithium have been renowned for centuries for their healing properties.
  9. Lithium was added to the original formulation of 7-UP soft drink for its mood-boosting benefits.

Further reading

Nutritional Lithium: A Cinderella Story by James M Greenblatt, MD and Kayla Grossman, RN
New York Times: Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?
New York Times: I Don’t Believe in God, but I Believe in Lithium

About Nicholas Hundley, MS, CNS

Nicholas Hundley is a nutritional biochemist and certified nutrition specialist. He is the main author for the MindWhale blog at MindWhale.com. He practices nutrition and can be found at NicholasHundley.com

15 thoughts on “Are You Lithium Deficient?”

  1. To make a long story short, Im 54 years old. Im educated and intelligent. My health is my concern. Id appreciate your help. Being my own advocate and doing my own research is teaching me so much but I need an expert, or someone hyperfocused for whatever reason because YIKES! Bloodwork without lithium prescribed is worthless and i need my hair tested? I feel like my dr would commit me if I asked for that. Help. I will VOLUNTEER for testing.

    Moving forward my I’ve taken antidepressants and
    methylphenidate for years. Lithium was prescribed about a year ago and I find it immensely helpful. Moving forward….

    Current medications: Methylphenidate, floxetine (sp?prozac), lithium (300-600) and pempro (horomone).

    I recently had my blood drawn. High cholesterol (345) and low lithium.

    Again, blood test lithium is useless unless taking lithium?…I need hair test? I’m my best advocate but I need guidance and info… )

    Add generic Lipitor to daily meds….

    I dont feel Im that complicated and Im concerned for my liver…

    • Dear Gina,
      Doctor’s Data has a good hair test. You should not feel bad about asking for non-invasive testing (hair). It is easy for a doctor to order these kits. If your doctor makes you feel bad, guilty, or crazy, FIND A NEW ONE. Functional/integrative doctors and naturopaths are the way of the future. Please be careful with the meds. I heard Prozac tends to make a person dependent for life and Lipitor shrinks brain tissue due to the composition of your brain being mostly fat/cholesterol.

    • Hi Gina. I wish I could help your specific situation. Each individual is unique, so you’ll get best results with a knowledgeable health practitioner. Healthcare practitioners trained in functional medicine often take a more root-cause approach to health concerns like yours. I’m sure you’ll find answers.

    • Great Plains laboratory and Doctor’s Data provide hair mineral testing. Some nutritionists will sell them to you online.

  2. I just had A hair test done that showed the lithium low B 12 although minerals and I was told that I should get my lithium levels up before I take B12.
    The company was not very helpful and suggested I take their supplements that add ingredients I would react.
    I have Lyme disease, serious candida. I am bedridden with neuropathy like symptoms that began three months ago.

    Could you tell me if my lithium need to increase before i take b12?

    • Lithium improves B12 transport, but I’m personally not aware of researching stating you NEED more lithium for B12 to function. Lithium need is highly individual, and lithium levels are highly variable between geographic locations and water supply. If it’s not showing up in a hair test, there’s a good chance the individual doesn’t have enough and micro-dosing might be beneficial.

    • I’ve been taking lithium for twenty years. However, during the last ten years the doctors say that its not showing up in my blood. Is there a possible reason for this?

      • Whether it shows up really depends on the “lower limit of detection” of the specific test. My understanding was that most blood tests don’t have a low lower limit of detection, meaning that it may not be sensitive enough. You’d have to ask your doctor about the lower limit. Thanks for the question.

  3. Just want to share this somewhere. My Mum had schizophrenia and epilepsy. My Dad has major depression. I’ve had worsening mental health (depression, OCD, crippling anxiety, trichotillomania, then diagnosed Asperger’s too) since about age 8. I’ve taken SSRIs, SNRIs, anticonvulsants, antipsycotics over the years with only limited effect and many side effects, so I gave up on them and tried to manage without. This year it got reallllly bad, the most intrusive and persistent suicidal thoughts I’ve ever had, have been getting really desperate, with physical symptoms too of aches and pains, terribly upset stomachs, no energy, weight loss. I happened to discover lithium orotate. It has been like magic; the suicidal thoughts have completely GONE within days. I can now talk to and phone people comfortably. I am experiencing a large decrease in OCD urges. And I’m only on 10mg and haven’t taken it for long, and things are still improving. Going to start 20 mg soon, excited. I wonder how many people with mental health issues would benefit. *Note: I also take magnesium glycinate to help with my stress levels, vitamin D3 as a blood test said it was low and to help with mental and immune health, and I eat a semi-paleo, gluten and lactose free diet, all of which have helped a little, but it wasn’t until adding the lithium that I really markedly FELT a consistent, noticeable difference that I can’t deny – better than taking an antidepressant, without side effects or that weird drugged feeling I had on antideps.

  4. Sounds like mercury toxicity…have you used the counting rules as described by chemist Andy Cutler to see if you have deranged mineral transport? If you meet the counting rules for deranged mineral transport, then assume mercury toxicity. Mercury normally shows low on a hair test because the body likes to retain it and it settles in tissue & organs. The hair test shows what the body is removing not what it is holding on to. A lot of people with Lyme, candida, and neuropathy diagnoses have mercury toxicity as those can be symptoms rather than the problem. Most doctors do not know how to properly interpret the hair analysis test.

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