December 15, 2018
Man holding supplements
Ask the Experts

Do Lithium Supplements Live Up to the Claims?

by Jeanine Barone  

Q: Can taking low-dose lithium supplements have any mental or physical benefits?

A: Very unlikely. Lithium is being touted as an overlooked micronutrient, and dietary supplements containing very low doses of it are being promoted for everything from improving mood and countering cognitive decline to preventing violent behavior and even prolonging lives. But as dietary supplements, the labels and ads cannot make any explicit health claims.

Lithium is a chemical element present in soil, rocks, and groundwater. Traces are found in many foods, including grains, vegetables, and meat. But lithium is not considered an “essential” nutrient—that is, humans don’t need to consume it to stay healthy.

In high doses, lithium is a well-known psychiatric drug that is typically prescribed to treat bipolar disorder or as an adjunct treatment for certain people who don’t respond adequately to antidepressants. While prescription doses are usually 300 to 1,800 milligrams of lithium carbonate a day, of which about 20 percent is elemental lithium, most supplements provide a tiny fraction of that (0.3 to 10 milligrams of elemental lithium, usually in the form of lithium orotate).

In the 19th century, Lithia Springs in Georgia became a health resort famous for its “curative waters,” which naturally contain low levels of lithium. “Lithia water” is still sold online as a tonic for mental and physical health.

Some animal studies have linked low-level lithium consumption to health benefits, as have some human observational studies that have looked at lithium intake, usually from water. For instance, an observational study in the European Journal of Nutrition in 2011 found that Japanese people whose tap water naturally contained higher levels of lithium (still minuscule compared to drugs) had reduced mortality rates. Similarly, a study in JAMA Psychiatry in 2017 found that Danes whose tap water had the highest levels of lithium were at reduced risk for dementia, though water with mid-range levels was linked to higher risk, which the researchers could not explain.

But overall the observational research has produced inconsistent findings. For instance, some studies have suggested benefits from higher lithium intake from tap water only in men, some only in women, and some found no apparent benefits. There have been few published clinical trials on low-dose lithium supplements, none demonstrating benefits. One exception was a sketchy Brazilian study in Current Alzheimer Research in 2013, which suggested that a “microdose” of lithium helped prevent further cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease, compared to a placebo.

High doses of lithium, as provided by medication, can have serious adverse effects, including hypothyroidism, kidney disease, and convulsions. Little is known about the safety of long-term use of low-dose lithium supplements. Risks are likely to increase if people take multiple capsules daily of some of the more potent products.

Bottom line: In concentrated form, lithium is a drug. It shouldn’t be taken as a dietary supplement, even at very low doses.