It doesn’t happen often, but a simple remedy from nature sometimes gains acceptance by the medical profession.
Lithium – a common mineral – is the most widely used and studied medication for treating bipolar disorder. And now it’s finally getting the attention it deserves for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.1
This newest study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, shows that very small doses, or micro-dosing, of lithium may help stop advanced Alzheimer’s pathology and even help patients recover lost cognitive abilities.2 Let’s take a closer look at the science.
Unusual History of An Unlikely Treatment
Lithium is a mineral—a salt, actually— that doctors and healers have used over the course of history to heal a wide range of ailments from asthma to migraines.
Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, lithium springs were sought-after health destinations, visited by authors, political figures and celebrities.
In 1929, a soft drink inventor named Charles Leiper Grigg created a new lithiated beverage he called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda. Today, you know it as “7-Up.” The popular soft drink was originally marketed to cure hang-overs and to lift mood. It contained lithium citrate until 1950.
In modern medicine, lithium is most widely known to stabilize mood in patients struggling with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. Years of research and clinical use shows that high-dose lithium restores brain and nervous system function, right down to the molecular level.
In fact, scientists first became interested in the use of lithium in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease when they observed that bipolar patients using lithium therapy seemed to have lower rates of cognitive decline than did peers on other medications.
In an attempt to scientifically confirm these findings, one study compared the rates of Alzheimer’s disease in 66 elderly patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder and receiving chronic lithium therapy with the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease in 48 similar patients who were not prescribed the mineral.
The results were remarkable: Patients receiving continuous lithium showed a decreased prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease (5 percent) as compared with those in the non-lithium group (33 percent).3 That means patients NOT taking the mineral were six times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease!
Additional research in Denmark confirmed this phenomenon. In this study series, investigators surveyed the records of over 21,000 patients who had received lithium treatment and found the therapy was associated with decreased levels of both Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.4
The research is not without controversy. Continued treatment with high dosages of lithium can result in a slew of unwanted side effects ranging from weight gain and hand tremors to kidney failure.
The Key is to Keep the Dose Low
That’s what so exciting about the latest research into micro-doses of lithium, where researchers gave doses hundreds of times lower than what is used for mood disorders in hopes of preventing these side effects in dementia patients. In the 2017 study researchers at McGill University studied the use of micro-doses in rats suffering with the early stages of Alzheimer’s.5
“These results were remarkably positive,” reports lead researcher Dr. Claudio Cuello, of McGill’s Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
Dr. Cuello explains that from a practical point of view the micro-doses can pass through the brain-blood barrier while minimizing levels of lithium in blood. This, in turn, spares people from adverse effects found with higher doses.
Heartened by the 2017 study results, the McGill University researchers were curious about what would happen when this lithium formulation was administered at the later stages of the disease.
The newest study found micro-doses of lithium resulted in “diminishing pathology and improving cognition” even in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, when amyloid plaques are already present in the brain and when cognition starts to decline.
“While it is unlikely that any medication will revert the irreversible brain damage at the clinical stages of Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Cuello says “it is very likely that a treatment with micro-doses of encapsulated lithium should have tangible beneficial effects.”
Could Adding Lithium to Drinking Water Protect Against Dementia?
That’s the question that Danish researchers posed after their study of 800,000 people showed that the prevalence of dementia in the population decreased as lifetime exposure to lithium in drinking water increased.
“Our findings agree with results of the two longer-term randomized clinical trials of lithium in subtherapeutic doses producing stabilizing effects among individuals with mild cognitive impairment treated with low doses of lithium for two years and patients with Alzheimer disease treated with a micro-dose of lithium for 15 months,” they wrote in JAMA Psychiatry in 2017.6
They concluded that long-term increased lithium exposure in drinking water may be associated with a lower incidence of dementia. The research team found that there is a positive link between lithium treatment in low doses and brain gray matter in regions of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The study was based on Danish national health registries, which offered data on patients with dementia and causes of death from 1970 to 2013. The health data led to the identification of 73,731 patients with diagnosis of dementia.
Lithium levels in drinking water were calculated for 275 Danish municipalities. Researchers found significantly higher lithium exposure in individuals who did not develop dementia.
Still, the authors admit that the prospect of adding lithium to public drinking water is not without political and societal controversy.
Here’s My Take
Readers of Brain Health Breakthroughs have known for years that lithium is a valuable support for good brain health. Our sister company, Green Valley Natural Solutions, offers a low-dose lithium supplement.
I’ve taken it myself for years and experienced no side effects at all. Plus, no Green Valley customer has reported any side effects from the supplement (Green Valley is required by law to forward any such reports to the FDA.)
Besides the evidence that low-dose lithium can help prevent or treat Alzheimer’s, there is also significant evidence it helps with other pathologies. One study showed that areas with high levels of lithium in the water had lower suicide and crime rates. This evidence is not conclusive (recite along with me: More studies are needed), but it sure is suggestive.
- Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, vol. 73, no. 2, pp. 723-739, 2020
- Nunes et al., 2007
- Kessing et al., 2008, 2010
- JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(10):1005-1010. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2362