The Misunderstood Mineral – An Anti-Aging Brain Secret

The biggest problem with lithium treatment is people’s perception of it. Since its most well known use is for bi-polar disorder, lithium sometimes encounters the same stigma as mental illness itself.

I’ve been taking a lithium supplement every day for several years. When I tell people about it, they sometimes get funny looks on their faces and start eyeing the corners of the room for straight jackets. These reactions don’t surprise me, since, as I said, lithium is usually associated with mental illness. But I’ve never suffered from a mental disorder (although certain mainstream medical doctors and possibly a federal agency or two might disagree). Treating manic-depressive (bi-polar) illness is lithium’s most widely known use–but it isn’t an anti-psychotic drug, as many people believe. In fact, lithium isn’t a drug at all. It’s actually a mineral-part of the same family of minerals that includes sodium and potassium.

You might remember reading several editions of Health e-Tips a few months ago that discussed various benefits of lithium. In addition to the benefits mentioned in the e-Tips, like controlling gout and relieving rashes caused by sebhorric dermatitis, lithium also has some great brain-boosting effects. In fact, I’ve reviewed both recent lithium research and the research spanning the past few decades, and I’m convinced that lithium is an anti-aging nutrient for human brains. And there are also some very strong reasons to believe that lithium therapy will slow the progression of serious degenerative mental problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, senile dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.

So there are obviously quite a few "pros" to using lithium, but you’re probably wondering about the "cons." In the 1930s and ’40s, lithium chloride was sold in stores as a salt substitute. But (as frequently happens) some people used way too much and suffered toxic overdoses, so it fell out of common use. Fortunately, lithium toxicity is entirely preventable, and it’s also easily treatable if it ever does occur – but more about that later. Right now, let’s get into some of the specifics on just how you (and your brain) can benefit from lithium.

Taking (grey) matters into your own hands

Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous fictional detective, had an amusing quirk in his incessant concern for his "little grey cells." I thought of Hercule several years ago when I saw the following headline in an issue of the Lancet: "Lithium-induced increase in human brain grey matter."

That may not sound like an earth-shattering piece of news, but it actually was quite a major discovery. To that point, medical experts believed that once our brains matured, it was all downhill from then on. Decades of autopsies, x-rays, and, more recently, brain scans have repeatedly shown that brains shrink measurably with aging. But according to their report in the Lancet, Wayne State University (Detroit) researchers found that lithium has the ability to both protect and renew brain cells [1]. Eight of 10 individuals who took lithium showed an average 3 percent increase in brain grey matter in just four weeks.

Lithium may help to generate entirely new cells too: Another group of researchers recently reported that lithium also enhances nerve cell DNA replication [2]. DNA replication is a first step in the formation of a new cell of any type.

The Wayne State study used high-dose lithium, but I’m certainly not using that amount myself, nor do I recommend it. Prescription quantities of lithium just aren’t necessary for "everyday" brain cell protection and re-growth. Studies done years ago have shown that very low amounts of lithium can also measurably influence brain function for the better.

Protect yourself from brain damage you didn’t even know you had

Aside from boosting brain mass, recent research also shows that lithium can help protect your brain from the "beating" it gets in the course of everyday life. Your brain cells are constantly at risk of damage from exposure to toxins of all sorts-even ones produced by your own body. Toxic molecules are formed naturally during the course of normal brain metabolism [3-7]. Since these "normal" toxic molecules (sometimes called "excitotoxins") are produced every day of your life, eventually they start to wear down or erode away brain mass.

Another well-known cause of brain cell injury is overactivated N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. Lithium can inhibit this overactivity [8]. And lithium also increases production of a major brain protective protein called "bcl-2" in both human and animal brain cells [9].

So it appears that lithium can protect against normal brain erosion and shrinkage that would otherwise occur over the course of our lives. But lithium also protects the brain from other less "normal" problems too, like damage caused by prescription medications and strokes.

When a clot or other obstruction occurs in a blood vessel serving the brain, it causes a reduction of blood flow to that area. If it’s bad enough, the lack of blood flow will cause a stroke and death of brain cells. (This type of stroke is known as an ischemic stroke.) Research in experimental animals with deliberately induced ischemic strokes has shown that lithium reduces the areas of cell death [10,11].

In one of these studies, researchers blocked a brain artery in rats. Some were pre-treated with lithium for 16 days, the rest weren’t. The researchers reported that the lithium-treated rats experienced 56 percent less cell death and significantly fewer neurologic deficits than the control rats [12].

And sometimes medications designed to treat other problems end up having a negative impact on the brain. For example, anti-convulsant medications cause abnormal levels of brain cell death. But lithium significantly protects against this type of cell death-so much so that this effect has been called "robust" (a term scientists use to mean "It really works!") [13].

In fact, based on its general neuroprotective effect, researchers have recently suggested that "the use of lithium as a neurotrophic/ neuroprotective agent should be considered in the long term treatment of mood disorders, irrespective of the ‘primary’ treatment modality being used for the condition" [14]. Translation: Lithium should be used along with any patent medicine being used for depression, anxiety, or any other "mood-altering" reason, since it will protect brain cells against their unwanted toxic effects. The researchers didn’t say so, but I will: Any list of "mood altering substances" should include alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, "uppers," "downers," and – for those who do inhale – marijuana. Harmless as some of them might seem, these substances can cause brain damage with medium to long-term abuse.

Keeping your brain’s lines of communication open and healthy

Scientists determine how healthy brain cells are by measuring levels of a molecule called N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA). A decrease in NAA is thought to reflect decreased nerve cell viability, decreased function, or even nerve cell loss [15]. In a study of 19 research volunteers given four weeks of lithium, 14 experienced a significant increase in NAA, one had no change, and four had a small decrease [16].

Now, what about the interaction between those new, protected, healthy brain cells? Communication between brain cells and networks of brain cells is called "signaling." And lithium is actually necessary for at least two signal-carrying pathways [17]. Researchers have also reported that lithium may help to repair abnormally functioning signaling pathways in critical areas of the brain [18].

Lithium and Alzheimer’s: New hope for a "hopeless" situation

As you know, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and there’s very little available for patients (and families) that can offer even partial relief from the turmoil it causes. So when new treatments are developed or discovered, it’s usually big news -a ray of hope for people stuck in a seemingly hopeless situation. One of these newly developed patent medications, called Memantine ™, was recently approved in Europe. Even though it’s not officially "approved" in this country (yet), thousands of people are already importing Memantine to the U.S. via various Internet sources. But why go through all the trouble (not to mention risk) of getting and using this new patent formula? Apparently, it "works" by protecting brain cells against damage caused by a major excitotoxin, glutamate. But protecting against glutamate-induced nerve cell damage is also one of the well-known actions of lithium. So if it’s true that this newly approved patent medication slows the progress of Alzheimer’s disease in this way, then lithium should slow Alzheimer’s disease progression, too. Of course, lithium treatment, which isn’t patentable and doesn’t have nearly the profit potential of patented Alzheimers medications, hasn’t made any headlines. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a promising option for patients struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.

There are many other research findings that also strongly suggest that lithium will protect against potential Alzheimer’s disease and slow the progression of existing cases. Researchers have reported that lithium inhibits beta-amyloid secretion, and also prevents damage caused by beta-amyloid protein once it’s been formed [20-23]. Beta-amyloid peptide is a signature protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease: the more beta-amyloid prote

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Dr. Jonathan Wright

Jonathan V. Wright, M.D. has degrees from both Harvard University (cum laude) and the University of Michigan. More than any other doctor, he practically invented the modern science of applied nutritional biochemistry and he has advanced nutritional medicine for nearly three decades.

Thousands of doctors respect Dr. Wright as the author of the best-selling Book of Nutritional Therapy and Guide to Healing with Nutrition, as well as other classics in the field. Yet he regards all the above as secondary to his family medical practice. For more than 27 years, he has devoted his talents to helping heal many thousands of patients. Combining the most advanced new natural techniques with the best in traditional medicine, he takes a truly holistic approach.

As of today, Dr. Wright has received over 35,000 patient visits at his now-famous Tahoma Clinic in Washington State.

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  1. james.street says

    Thanks for this nice article.
    While I’ve always agreed with podiatrists who say that the shoe is the foot’s worst enemy, I (and most of them) also agree that the shoe is the foot’s best friend too.
    Since Prometheus [Ancient Greek: Προμηθεύς, “forethought”] stole fire and Zeus punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while an eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day, we humans have faced the problem that with every technological advance comes a price.
    Unfortunately most human beings are conservative in almost all matters but are dependent on original and bold minds such as yours to advance their own cause.
    If they wont thank you or even follow your advice, I and others will.
    Thanks again for your courageous and tireless work.

  2. Anonymous says

    Dr Wright,

    I have a question about your recommendation of lithium aspartate.

    Isn’t aspartate an excitotoxin? According to Russell Blaylock, M.D. (author of Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills), aspartate is a neurotransmitter, but when consumed in isolation from other amino acids (the amino acids that aspartate is bound to when it occurs in nature), aspartate enters the brain in high concentrations and becomes a neurotoxin that excites brain and nerve cells to death. Aspartate is one of the main components of aspartame that contributes to its toxicity.

    When you take lithium aspartate (or magnesium aspartate, another of your recommendations), aren’t you consuming aspartate that acts as an excitotoxin in your body? How is consuming aspartate from lithium aspartate (or magnesium aspartate) different from consuming aspartate from aspartame?

  3. Anonymous says

    I found the article informative. And the bibliography was pretty extensive, which I appreciate.

    But why’d you leave the sources off this statement….
    The researchers didn’t say so, but I will: Any list of “mood altering substances” should include alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, “uppers,” “downers,” and – for those who do inhale – marijuana. Harmless as some of them might seem, these substances can cause brain damage with medium to long-term abuse.

    Okay, sure, there’s compelling evidence on alcohol killing brain cells, and perhaps even tobacco. But coffee, and marijuana? I haven’t read any legitimate publications on either of them causing brain cell death.

  4. Mary L. Long says

    Thank you for a refreshing article. My mother has been on Lithium for over fifteen years. She is now on Lithium Citrate after a hospitalization period last Dec for medication stabilization. She is Manic and some of her previous Psychiatrists have said Bi-Polar. The Lithium is the ONLY treatment that she responds to….Believe me, we have tried all of them. She was diagnosed with Parkinsons about nine years ago. She is on Sinemet 50/200 CR and Propranolol. She exercises every single day and works very hard in preventing her Parkinsons from progressing. She is doing well except shortness of breath which has just recently been bothering her. We have run blood tests, EKG, etc. to rule out any cardio problems. All came back normal. Her new Neurologist wants her to come off the Lithium and says it could have caused the Bi-Polar and making her Parkinsons worse! He also was not informed on many therapies used for Parkinsons. He sent a letter to our current therapist encouraging the discontinuation of Lithium. (even after I told him we had tried all of his other suggestions and Lithium is our treatment of choice). Apparently this forced her to turn us over to the director of the clinic . I fear the worst since some psychiatrists prefer the second or even third generation drugs as the preferred choice of treatment for Bi-polar and Manic Depression. We had her on the new drugs along with the Lithium and her prior psychiatrist got her down to the Lithium Citrate along with Prozac and Lamictal. This is still current. Our appt is Monday, October 4. Do you have any info on Lithium and how it relates to the treatment of Parkinsons?

  5. Anonymous says

    Recent findings at the Buck Institute (research in mice) indicated that Lithium might have significant activity to prevent the progression of Parkinson’s.

    What minimal starting dosage of L.Orotate might be useful to try here?

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