Lithium was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the first mood stabilizing psychiatric drug. Often used as the first-line treatment for acute depressive episodes, lithium medication has been around for decades. This article focuses on the use of lithium therapy to fight depression, its effects and side effects.
Lithium is a naturally occurring mineral found in igneous rocks, mineral springs and in trace quantities in plant and animal tissues. Natural hot water springs rich in lithium have historically been a major attraction for people from all over the world who swear by the curative benefits after taking dips and swims in them. Independent research has reportedly proven that lithium seems to positively influence certain biochemical mechanisms in the human body.
Discovery and Use of Lithium as a Psychiatric Drug
John Cade, an Australian psychiatrist, is credited with the discovery of lithium salts as a successful treatment option for depressive episodes. In 1949, he published the results of his controlled experiments, in a paper Lithium salts in the treatment of psychotic excitement, which was published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
His discovery was quite remarkable considering the crude and invasive methods of treatment such as electric shocks and lobotomies that were prevalent in those times when mental disorders were neither understood well nor treated properly. The discovery did not lead to widespread use of lithium in treatment, until much later. Incidentally, sale of lithium was initially banned in the US until 1970, for altogether different reasons.
Presently, lithium medication is often administered as the standard procedure to effectively deal with depression, mania and bipolar disorder. However, these prescription medications must be used only under strict medical supervision as an overdose of lithium or abruptly stopping the intake of these drugs can be detrimental to one’s health.
It is important to note that any mental health solution is administered only after a thorough study of each case (physical and mental case history of the patient) and regular monitoring of its effects. If the treatment worked for your relative or friend, it does not imply that exactly the same dosage is suitable for your “similar” condition. A psychological evaluation by a mental health expert is a prerequisite for the treatment of depression and other symptoms of mental illnesses.
Benefits of Lithium Treatment
Clinical depression is characterized by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness and in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts lasting for a long period, typically months. Mood swings and irritability are a hallmark of depressive episodes. In illnesses such as bipolar disorder, these episodes manifest as a sudden switch from extreme sadness to feelings of extreme elation and grandeur. Lithium medication serves to normalize these mood swings and restores long-term mood stability. In addition, prolonged use of lithium as per medical advice is known to not only minimize the severity of depressive episodes but also to prevent the recurrence of manic depression.
The effect of lithium on the central nervous system is not exactly known however, it has proven very effective in stabilizing a person’s mood, resulting in better control over emotions thus, reducing the risk of suicide (an impulsive action) and such extreme behavior drastically. For this reason, lithium is widely used as a prophylactic treatment or maintenance therapy to reduce recurrence in patients who have had several frequent episodes. The dosage of lithium medication varies with the severity of the illness and it may also be administered in addition to other antidepressant drugs.
Precautionary Measures for Lithium Intake
As with any medication, lithium may not suit everyone and therefore it should never be self-administered. The following precautionary measures will make you aware of possible risks of lithium medication that will ensure that you get the maximum benefit out of the treatment.
- Inform your healthcare provider about any pre-existing conditions such as cardiac problems, kidney disease, epilepsy, dehydration or thyroid problems.
- If you are planning to conceive a baby or are already pregnant, do not fail to inform your healthcare provider. Lithium medication has been linked to birth defects. It is also not recommended to take lithium medication if you are breastfeeding, as lithium secreted through the milk could expose your infant to toxic levels of the chemical.
- If you have forgotten to take a single dose, Do Not compensate by taking a double dose without consulting your doctor. Similarly, Do Not discontinue the drugs as soon as you start “feeling well” or if you find no relief within few days of starting dosage. Lithium generally takes a few weeks to take full effect. The body’s therapeutic response to lithium is very gradual and sensitive, prolonged dosage must be discontinued gradually under medical supervision. If the manic episodes return, do not self-medicate. Consider a diabetic patient, for example, who needs to take daily insulin shots. The patient cannot miss a shot just because he/she feels well and certainly cannot stop taking the shots because the insulin levels have been normal for several months.
- Regular blood tests will be recommended by the doctor to check the levels of lithium. Based on the analysis, you will be asked to continue, discontinue or alter the dosage of lithium. It is recommended that you commit to this regular regime of the treatment to realize its full benefits.
- Do not feel discouraged by the side effects of the medication, lithium treatment to fight depression requires a bit of patience and a need to religiously follow the treatment routine. Your body will soon adjust to the medication. However, be aware of lithium toxicity symptoms and notify your doctor if you have any of them.
- Lithium medication can hamper your impulses (which is how it reduces suicidal thoughts), slow your responses such as alertness, presence of mind, etc., and cause hand tremors or muscle weakness. It is advisable not to drive a vehicle or engage in activities that require you to be constantly on your guard. Consult your healthcare provider in case of any doubts.
- Be sufficiently hydrated while on lithium medication.
Favorable Research Findings
Lithium has been recognized as a micronutrient mineral that is essential to human health by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the USDA. Nutritional research is increasingly placing lithium on a pedestal as brain food recommended for anti-aging of the brain, as a mood enhancer and for treating alcohol addiction and associated mood disorders.
Another more debatable use for lithium relates to the healing effects from bathing in the therapeutic natural springs rich in lithium content. Some experts believe that adding lithium to the water supply (like fluoride) is possibly the ultimate solution to all social evils like drug abuse, attempted suicides and other criminal behavior. This seems highly unlikely in the light of possible side effects and the fact that we still do not know how lithium exactly affects brain function. In the world of psychiatry, however, lithium continues to hold promise.
Research is focused on expanding the benefits of this “wonder drug” to treat other disorders like epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and autism. Clinical trials are being conducted using lithium in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). There is widespread speculation that, as lithium is an elementary metallic salt that could not be patented, its sale as medication does not seem like a viable commercial prospect, thus affecting its popularity as well as scope for further research. Nevertheless, it is no secret that its discovery in treating manic episodes has perhaps saved several patients from the brutality of electric shock treatments.
Disclaimer: This article is purely for informative and educational purposes, please seek the advice of a registered medical practitioner before consuming lithium medication or any other prescription drug.