Is Lithium an Essential Trace Mineral?

Minerals are vitally important for the human body to stay healthy. They are used in various processes, including the proper functioning of the bones, brain, and heart. They also play an important role in enzymatic and hormonal processes. There are two types of minerals that we need in our body: macrominerals and trace minerals. We require large amounts of macrominerals, which include: calcium, sulfur, potassium, chlorine, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium. And we only need small amounts of trace minerals: iron, zinc, cobalt, manganese, copper, iodine, selenium, fluorine, and a last one to be reviewed next, lithium.

Lithium is an alkaline chemical element. In its pure form, it is a silvery soft metal. It is the lightest metal and solid element with a density of 0.5 (half that of water). In high doses, lithium acts as a drug, which then leads to serious health problems. In low doses, it is a nutrient required for the transport of folates and vitamin B12, neuromodulation, and the correct function of various biochemical processes.  It is known that it can substitute sodium at the level of biological membranes, but it has been found that it increases cellular permeability and acts on neurotransmitters, favoring the stability of the state of mind. Therefore, it is used to treat and prevent episodes of mania in bipolar disorder. It can be found in variable amounts in food. The main sources are seeds, vegetables, and water contains important amounts of this element in some places.

Lithium as a Trace Mineral in Mental Health

Medicine tub with the word lithium on it and tablets surrounding it

As mentioned before, lithium has been used to treat mental health problems, mainly bipolarity, since it acts on neurotransmitters and helps stabilize the mood of people. 


Lithium and Suicide Prevention

Lithium is the most useful pharmacological strategy in the prevention of suicide, managing to approximate this risk to the rates observed in the general population both in bipolar and schizoaffective and monopolar depressive patients. This effect is independent of the stabilizing therapeutic answer for which it was originally prescribed; that is to say, those who do not respond in an adequate way from the psychic aspect would also obtain an anti-suicide effect. Therefore, if lithium does not play a stabilizing role, the association of another drug should be evaluated and not necessarily its suspension, since the action on suicidal behaviors justifies its administration beyond euthymia.

Lithium and Treatment of Psychosis

Before signs of full toxicity appear, lithium causes inhibition of nerve conduction, resulting in sedation and a deficit in mental functioning. This is how people in a manic state or other forms of overactivation are moderated when taking lithium.

Although there is no accepted biochemical theory on the neurobiological basis of psychosis and mood stabilizer functioning that helps to rationalize a disease-specific perspective on lithium’s action for this circumstance, it is important to understand that lithium is not a simple sedative. 

Lithium for Treating Dementia

Small doses of lithium have been found to be effective in preventing cognitive impairment. Even research shows that people treated with lithium have less neurodegeneration from Alzheimer’s disease than people who did not undergo lithium treatment.

a large pile of pure lithium

Like other alkaline metals, pure lithium is highly flammable and slightly explosive when exposed to air and especially water. It is also corrosive and therefore requires the use of appropriate handling equipment to avoid contact with the skin. It should be stored in a liquid hydrocarbon such as petroleum jelly or mineral oil. 

Lithium is a highly toxic alkaline metal for the nervous system, the intestine, and the kidneys in relatively small doses. Mild symptoms of toxicity include neurological symptoms, such as tremor or lethargy, which progresses to diarrhea and vomiting, incontinence, drowsiness, disorientation, muscle spasms, ataxia, and dysarthria as the toxicity becomes more intense, eventually leading to seizures, coma, and death. 

Lithium can also affect thyroid gland functions and cause hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is a metabolic disorder that can lead to depression, fatigue, memory loss, weight gain, and sensitivity to cold. Lithium is not a substrate for the sodium-potassium ATPase pump substrate that prevents the passage of sodium ions, replacing the concentration of sodium, which in high concentrations can be toxic.

Bottom Line
large crystal or mineral of lithium

Due to its varied functions in the body and the adverse effects it can have, controversy remains over whether lithium is an essential trace mineral. And the question remains whether there would be various health effects as a result of a very low concentration of lithium.

Its therapeutic use for mental health problems is well established, but more research is needed to determine if it is an essential trace mineral. If it is, the amount and concentration of lithium required to maintain physical and mental health will have to be analyzed. 

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