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Despite being one of the oldest elements in the known universe, lithium remains, to this day, shrouded in mystery.

What is lithium?

Is it a mineral or a nutrient?

Is it a toxin, a nutrient, or a medication? 

The answer to the first question is easy – yes! Lithium is a natural mineral, a product of the Big Bang formed ~13.8 billion years ago and subsequently distributed throughout the cosmos. On Earth, lithium is found in bedrock, groundwater, ocean water, and topsoil and, consequently, is naturally present in many of the foods we eat and the tap or spring water we drink.

All vertebrate animals (including humans) have trace levels of lithium in their tissues, and science has increasingly pulled back the curtain on the complex roles lithium plays in human biology.1 In a nutshell, overwhelming research demonstrates lithium to be an essential micronutrient, required for optimal health and function.2

The answer to the second question is also “yes,” but its explanation is necessarily more complicated. Like all substances, lithium’s identity – and the relationship it maintains with our biology – is determined by dose:

What is a Toxic Lithium Dose?

  • At doses above 2,000mg/day, lithium is toxic. We must remember, here, that this is true of all nutrients, even the essential ones! Vitamin D, Vitamin A, zinc, and other nutrients are beneficial when consumed in proper amounts, but potentially harmful when consumed in excess.

Lithium Medication Dosage

  • Given at doses from 600mg-2,000mg/day, lithium becomes a medication. The type of lithium used at this pharmaceutical range is lithium carbonate – a cornerstone of treatment for bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions. While a long-celebrated medicine, lithium carbonate does present a level of risk, and can induce side effects. It is for this reason that patients receiving pharmaceutical lithium must be carefully monitored by their doctors with routine blood testing, to ensure that lithium levels in the body don’t rise too high.

Nutritional Lithium Dosage

  • Low doses of 1-30mg/day fall into the realm of “nutritional,” a dose-response point at which lithium intake is equal to or only slightly higher than what might occur naturally through diet. The type of lithium used at this nutritional or low dose range, lithium orotate, has an excellent safety profile, and patients taking it do not need to be routinely monitored.3,4 Low dose lithium also represents, in my opinion, one of the most important frontiers in psychiatric medicine – a safe, effective intervention with applications ranging from Alzheimer’s prevention and suicide prevention to the treatment of ADHD, Conduct Disorder, irritability, anxiety, and more.

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  1. ENC Labs. Some facts about lithium. ENCLabs.com. https://www.enclabs.org/education.html. Archived from the original on July 10, 2011. Accessed September 23, 2019.
  2. Szklarska D, Rzymski P. Is lithium a micronutrient? From biological activity and epidemiological observation to food fortification. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2019;189(1):18-27.
  3. Murbach TS, Glávits R, Endres JR, et al. A toxicological evaluation of lithium orotate. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2021;124:104973. Doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2021.104973
  4. Devadason P. Is there a role for lithium orotate in psychiatry? Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2018;52(12):1107-1108.