In a previous post, I share some of my thoughts about free will and conscious human thought. My point is that truly conscious decision making only really happens between 5-25% of our time; our emotions, our demeanor, and our behavior is influenced by a large variety of factors. In this post, I want to share some more evidence specific to how simple salts influence human thought.
I was first introduced to this idea by an episode of Radiolab titled “Lithium.” During the episode, they share a story about writer Jaime Lowe, who has bipolar, and her experience with lithium – the third element on the periodic table.
They describe how lithium has been used to treat mental conditions such as bipolar, depression, and mania for decades.
According to the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine: “Lithium affects the flow of sodium through nerve and muscle cells in the body. Sodium affects excitation or mania. Lithium is used to treat the manic episodes of bipolar disorder (manic depression). Manic symptoms include hyperactivity, rushed speech, poor judgment, reduced need for sleep, aggression, and anger. Lithium also helps to prevent or lessen the intensity of manic episodes.”
How Lithium Works in the Brain
No one is fully sure how lithium is able to “lessen the intensity of manic episodes” like hyperactivity, poor judgement, aggression, and anger, but that won’t stop us from theorizing.
Lithium is very structurally similar to Sodium and Potassium, both of which we consume on a day to day basis. All three alkali metals are circled below on the periodic table:
In the photo below, you can see that all three of these atoms have one electron in their outermost electron shell.
Because their similar structures, they all share some properties and behaviors in common. All of them are soft shiny metals that are highly reactive and tend to lose their outer most electron, which turns them into positively charged ions.
We literally could not live without sodium and potassium in our bodies, as they enable our nerve cells to “fire” or send electrical signals to each other. Neurons enable us to feel. Neurons are the channels through which the body passes information and the means by which our brain works and enables thought.
Below is a video showing how ionized sodium (Na+) and (K+) play a instrumental role in how our brain’s neurons fire. You don’t have the watch the whole video. The main point is this: if a significant enough charge builds on one end of the neuron it causes the neuron to let Na+ inside to induce an electrical current to flow down to neuron and to, in turn, “fire” the next nueron in the chain.
When comparing Li+ and Na+, Lithium is smaller and has a higher charge density. While no ones know exactly how it changes human behavior. Dr. Mark DeAntonio (also featured on the Radiolab episode) summarizes his theory like something like this:
Bipolar involves a defect in the part of the brain that regulates mood. For most people this area of the brain tries to keep your mood even. For people with bipolar, this area of the brain is more active. Lithium is very similar to sodium (in structure), so instead of using sodium to fire neurons, lithium takes sodium’s place. Lithium works just like sodium, “but not as well. Lithium is similar enough in properties that it can be an imposter, but whatever it does, it just doesn’t work as well. So then this area of the brain, the defective area of the brain, that makes these moods flip on and off so intensely doesn’t work as well and that stops the bipolar episode.” It becomes sluggish and works slower than it did without lithium.
Lithium in Your Drinking Water
On the show, Dr. Anna Fels describes various reputable studies conducted in Japan, Austria, Greece, and in the United States (specifically Texas) that analyzed differences between areas with naturally occurring deposits of lithium in drinking water and those without the lithium in drinking water.
The results are profound…
- In a 1990 study looking at 27 Texas counties, researchers found that areas with the highest amount of lithium in the water had 40% fewer suicides.
- In Japan, a 5 year long study of 18 municipalities with over a million people, “Suicide rates were inversely correlated with the lithium content in the local water supply.” More lithium… less suicide.
- “When the data from the Japanese study was reanalyzed in a second publication, the authors concluded that those people with higher levels of lithium in their water supply had lower levels of ‘all-cause mortality.’”
- “One study found that at the higher therapeutic doses used to treat mood disorders, brain scans of bipolar patients treated with lithium actually had increased areas of gray matter (neurons) in their brains, compared with bipolar patients who had not been on lithium and with normal controls. The authors speculated that lithium might protect the brain, perhaps promoting neuronal growth.”
Bipolar patients are often given between 300-600 mg of lithium. In these areas of Texas, the water contained 0.070-0.170 mg of lithium per Liter of water. That’s just a fraction (0.03%) of the amount given to bipolar patients and yet somehow these areas have decreased rates of suicide and crime.
However, lithium isn’t a miracle drug… in high, unregulated doses it can be toxic and even fatal. In her NY Times article, Dr Anna Fels makes the arguement that lithium should be reintroduced for further testing and future micro-dosing in water and other beverages. Some scientists even argue that lithium should be considered an essential mineral for regular micro-dosed consumption.
Philosophizing about Lithium
If something as simple as Lithium can influence our emotions, suicide rates, and violent crime rates, how free, as humans, are we really?
When a friend loses their temper, was it his fault? Or is he more agitated than usual because the balance of sodium, lithium or potassium in his brain is out of whack?
Have you ever felt off? Felt in a “funk”?
“You’re not just saying my mind, my personality is being changed by an atom. It’s being changed by an atom that was created directly in the Big Bang itself. So you have this atom formed in the Big Bang, goes through whatever its does – winding path to come onto the Earth – gets dug up, turned in to a pill, given to someone, and that changes their affect in the world. And that to me is just, it’s this profound reminder that the forces that shape everything in the universe are the same forces that are shaping who we are and what we do and what our identity is…” – Ben Lillie, Story Collider
As strong as you are [and, yeah, you are strong], sometimes factors beyond our control will impact us – how we feel, how we think, and how we relate to other people.
If we accept that sometimes our willpower alone won’t be enough to get us doing what our best self knows we ought to do, then we can set control measures in place for ourselves to help steer us down that right road, when our fallible judgement can’t.
- If you’re interested in what I mean by “setting control measures,” leave a question in the comments.
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If you try and find the Radiolab episode “Lithium” on your podcast app, Radiolab has since consolidated the 33 minute episode “Lithium” under the longer episode “Elements.”