Lithium aspartate and lithium orotate are gaining recognition as supplements that can help decrease signs of brain aging, slow dementia, and fight depression and addiction. Lithium is a mineral that has long been used in the treatment of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. Although the drug can be toxic in high doses, lithium supplements may appeal to those seeking to treat brain illnesses with natural, over-the-counter remedies. However, consult your physician before taking any supplements.
What Is Lithium?
Although the word "lithium" conjures images of psychiatric medication, it is actually a natural alkali metal salt in the same family of minerals as potassium and sodium. Lithium is extracted from mineral springs and brine pools. It is also mined from igneous rock. The two main sources of lithium in the world are Kings Mountain, North Carolina and a salt desert in the Andes Mountains of Chile.
Lithium Salt Binders
Lithium requires a binder, or transporter, to make it accessible to the body. It cannot be absorbed without this binder. Eskalith and Lithobid, the formulations of lithium prescribed to bipolar patients, use carbonate as a transporter. Carbonate is a formulation of carbon and oxygen. Orotate is a salt derived from orotic acid frequently used as a binder for mineral supplements. Aspartate comes from aspartic acid, an amino acid.
Lithium aspartate and lithium orotate are available over-the-counter and contain lower dosages of lithium than lithium carbonate, which must be prescribed by a doctor. Most proponents of low-dose lithium therapy such as Dr. Jonathan Wright recommend them equally. However, aspartate is thought to be an excitotoxin, a substance that binds to nerve cell receptors and may cause damaging over-stimulation. Marlina E. Borkwood, MSc states that excitotoxins can cause headaches, brain edema, eye inflammation, vascular system and central nervous system problems in sensitive individuals. Those who want to try low-dose lithium therapy and have experienced sensitivity to another excitotoxin, monosodium glutamate -- a food additive commonly known as MSG -- may wish to stick with lithium orotate.
Lithium for Alzheimer's
Lithium supplementation is gaining recognition as a preventative measure against Alzheimer's disease, with aspartate and orotate the binders used in the recommended supplements. According to Dr. Jonathan V. Wright, the medical director of the Renton, Washington-based Tahoma Clinic, lithium therapy can slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and senile dementia. A 2000 study conducted by Dr. Gregory Moore, director of the Brain Imaging Research Division of the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, performed MRI scans on 10 bipolar subjects before and after four weeks of lithium treatment. The post-treatment scans revealed a significant increase in gray matter volume compared to the pre-treatment scans. Dr. Moore's study used lithium carbonate, but proponents of lithium aspartate and lithium orotate treatment see the results as indicative of the overall efficacy of lithium against Alzheimer's.
Lithium for Mental Illness and Addiction
Prescription lithium carbonate, along with valproic acid and lamotrigine, is a first-line mood stabilizer used for managing bipolar disorder. It is also occasionally used as an adjuvant medication for unipolar depression. According to Dr. Wright, lithium can also be helpful in treating alcoholism. He prescribes his alcoholic patients 10 mg of lithium orotate three times daily, in conjunction with dietary changes, niacin, glutamine and other supplements, and reports that the majority of his patients experience improved mood and decreased desire to drink after approximately six weeks of lithium therapy. A 2006 study published in the British Journal of Addiction reports that symptoms of alcoholism and affective disturbance decreased in patients treated with lithium carbonate.
Lithium is toxic in high doses, with symptoms of toxicity including hand tremors, excessive thirst, frequent urination, nausea and vomiting. Extreme toxicity is indicated by drowsiness, loss of coordination, muscular weakness, blurred vision and ringing in the ears. Significant weight gain is a well-known side effect that causes a portion of those prescribed lithium for mental illness to quit taking their medication. Because renal failure is possible in cases of lithium toxicity, serum monitoring of lithium levels is crucial in those taking doses high enough to treat bipolar disorder.