Lithium is simply a mineral, found naturally as a salt in almost everything we eat. But the concentration of Lithium in food depends on soil quality and water filtration systems, and the past few decades have seen a marked decline in the amounts we naturally consume. The manufacture of Lithium Orotate is a reaction to this – a way for us to continue to consume Lithium in the face of environmental depletion.
But isn’t Lithium a medication, not a supplement?
Actually, it’s both. But it’s important to make the distinction that it’s Lithium Carbonate, not Lithium Orotate, that is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medication. Lithium Carbonate is a popular treatment for many psychiatric disorders and is even listed in the WHO [World Health Organization] Model List of Essential Medicines. But Lithium Orotate is a different story.
A growing body of evidence shows that Lithium confers a range of neuroprotective and neurotrophic (growth stimulating) effects not just in people with psychiatric disease and neurodegenerative conditions, but also in perfectly healthy people. As our natural levels of Lithium consumption have fallen, some scientists have begun to advocate its use as a supplement. This is where Lithium Orotate comes in.
While the FDA still does not recommend its use due to insufficient evidence, more and more people are starting to enjoy the benefits of low-dose Lithium supplementation. Lithium Orotate, the most commonly used supplement, is used at much lower dose rates than medically prescribed Lithium Carbonate. Many scientists believe Lithium Orotate is absorbed and transported into cells much more effectively than Lithium Carbonate, meaning the same effect can be gained from this lower dose. For more on this, see ‘What are the different forms of Lithium?’
Is Lithium Orotate an antidepressant?
Yes and no. By definition, an antidepressant is any substance that can be used to treat depression. Lithium Carbonate is therefore classified as an antidepressant, and it stands to reason that Lithium Orotate should also fall under this umbrella. However, because it is not FDA approved and because Lithium’s antidepressant effects are not scientifically proven when it is consumed in the Orotate form, Lithium Orotate is not officially classified as an antidepressant.
Why do healthy people use Lithium Orotate?
Because evidence suggests it’s actually an essential micronutrient
A 2002 report on Lithium as a nutrient provisionally recommended an adult allowance of 1 mg per day. The report points out that we have known for over a century that Lithium can be found in many human organs and tissues, suggesting it plays a role in normal organ function. And while Lithium deficiency is not recognised in humans, signs of Lithium deficiency have been documented in rats and goats – specifically, higher mortality rates and reproductive and behavioural abnormalities.
Because it appears to protect against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease
A 2013 review reported that “observational and case registry studies have shown that chronic Lithium intake is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease in subjects with bipolar disorder”. The authors interpret this as evidence that Lithium may modify the progression of Alzheimer’s, though they are quick to note that long-term studies are required before it can be recommended. (That said, evidence points to Lithium Orotate being perfectly safe at the recommended dose, so for many people the potential benefits well outweigh the risks.)
Because it improves mood and reduces the risk of suicide
In humans, low Lithium intake has been linked with increased hospital admissions for psychiatric conditions. A 2009 study in Japan linked low Lithium intake levels in drinking water with higher incidence of suicide, and a 2011 study in Austria replicated these findings.
Few studies have prospectively examined the effect of Lithium in healthy individuals, but in a 1994 placebo-controlled study, participants that received Lithium at 0.4 mg per day over four weeks had greater mood scores as measured by self-administered questionnaires. Despite the lack of clear evidence, the internet abounds with anecdotal reports of improved mood and reduced anxiety.
Because it appears to increase longevity
In 2011, scientists documented significantly lower mortality rates in Japanese municipalities with more Lithium in their drinking water. They then performed a follow-up study showing that worms receiving Lithium lived significantly longer. Of course, this is far from definitive proof, but it’s certainly food for thought.
Because Lithium has a range of known neuroprotective effects
Lithium is known to influence the expression, production and action of a wide variety of functional proteins in the brain and thereby protects neurons from processes that promote cell death. Lithium has also been shown to increase long-term potentiation, a process that supports learning and memory.
Is Lithium Orotate appropriate for treating mental health issues?
Since its approval in 1970, Lithium Carbonate (not Orotate) has been the treatment of choice for bipolar disease, and has been found to be useful in the treatment of major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric conditions. It has also shown promise in the treatment of many neurodegenerative diseases, including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.
Lithium Orotate is a safer and possibly more bioavailable alternative to Lithium Carbonate, so its use may be merited in the treatment of all these disorders, though very few studies have evaluated its use in medical applications. In the early 1970s, studies suggested that Lithium Orotate may be useful in the treatment of depression, epilepsy, migraines, and alcoholism. However, these studies are far from conclusive, as they relied on subjective reports and were not placebo-controlled.
Our current understanding of Lithium’s mechanisms of action suggests it may be beneficial for all the above conditions, as well as anxiety, PTSD, and OCD. It is important to always bear in mind, however, that Lithium is not registered as a treatment for any psychiatric conditions. If you suffer from poor mental health then low-dose Lithium supplementation may be worth considering, though you should always discuss this with a professional.
For a more in-depth treatment of the benefits, medical uses, and physiologic effects of Lithium, see ‘What is Lithium?’