Lithium: The Miracle Mineral That Heals Your Brain

When an MRI scan of my brain showed cerebral atrophy a number of years ago, it wasn’t surprising; most people experience some brain shrinkage as a “normal” feature of aging. A few months later I read a research article in the Lancet showing that low-dose lithium reversed cerebral atrophy, so I added 20 milligrams (mg) a day of lithium orotate to my supplement program.


About five years after the first scan, a repeat MRI revealed that the atrophy was completely gone! Recent research has unveiled the mechanism: lithium triggers the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which stimulates the growth of stem cells, leading to neuroregeneration.


To understand lithium, you need to appreciate the distinction between high-dose lithium and low-dose lithium. There is a world of difference.


High-dose lithium is a potentially toxic pharmaceutical used as a drug to treat severe mental illness. Typical doses for bipolar disorder and mania range from 500 to 2,000 mg a day.


Low-dose (or microdose) lithium is an essential mineral nutrient (like calcium, magnesium, or zinc) that is necessary for human survival and works to harmonize metabolic function in the central nervous system. Typical daily intakes for low-dose lithium are much smaller, ranging from 20 to 80 mg a day. These doses are very effective and do not cause side effects or adverse reactions.


Big-Time Protection


In just the past few years numerous research studies have shown that low-dose lithium blocks the molecular dysfunctions that trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and reverses the progression to cognitive decline. It strengthens nerve cell connections in brain regions that are involved in regulating mood, thinking, and behavior. And it enhances brain size, optimizes cognitive health, improves memory, and boosts overall brain function. Remarkably, this miracle mineral not only prevents and reverses age-related cerebral atrophy but has even proven helpful in the treatment of traumatic brain injury.


Fighting off neurodegenerative diseases requires that the brain replace damaged neurons. One of lithium’s most fascinating effects is that it promotes neuronal repair in the hippocampus by turning on the growth of new brain cells. When researchers zeroed in on the brain’s memory center in the hippocampus, they found a much higher concentration of lithium there, and the rate of regeneration of hippocampal nerve cells was closely correlated with lithium concentration. (Of course, to prevent dementia, it is also very important to identify and remove all the causes of neurodegeneration, as described in my book, Reversing Alzheimer’s.)


Low-dose lithium should be seriously considered as a primary preventive and treatment for cognitive decline. Administering this harmless mineral on a large scale could slow or even stop the Alzheimer’s epidemic.


Mechanisms of Action


How does low-dose lithium provide a beneficial and safe neuroprotective therapy and dramatic dementia risk reduction? How does it defend memory cells against a diverse range of death threats while improving cognitive deficits in neurodegenerative disease—including stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, fragile X syndrome, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, and Parkinson’s disease?


Brains on lithium grow, heal, and function better because long-term microdose lithium orotate supplementation gradually reorganizes a broad spectrum of disrupted metabolic pathways. It enhances the synthesis of neuroprotective hormones like BDNF that promote the formation of new brain cells. It inhibits nerve cell death, turns on autophagy (cellular cleanup), improves mitochondrial cellular energy production, enhances neurotransmission, reduces cellular oxidative stress, increases gray matter density and cerebral cortex size, and enlarges the brain’s hippocampal memory center.


In a 2014 New York Times article entitled “Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?” psychiatrist Anna Fels characterizes the metal this way: “Lithium is the Cinderella of psychoactive medications, neglected and ill-used.” If the pharmaceutical industry came up with a drug that could do what lithium does, ads for it would be everywhere, and huge segments of the population would be taking it. But lithium is dirt cheap. It is an essential nutrient and therefore not patentable, so it languishes in the shadows, an unused miracle medicine that could be helping a lot of people.


The earliest metabolic changes that will eventually lead to Alzheimer’s disease usually begin decades before symptoms actually appear, so an early start on low-dose lithium orotate would be a highly effective lifestyle choice to prevent cognitive decline.


Low-dose lithium is available over the counter as a food-grade nutritional supplement—no prescription required. Only lithium as the orotate salt has been shown to pass through the blood-brain barrier and concentrate in the brain, so that is the form I recommend. Microdosing attempts to reproduce the optimum physiologic lithium levels present in a normal young, healthy brain. To accomplish that goal, take 20 to 80 mg per day, all at once or in divided doses.


Shouldn’t we all take a bit of lithium?