Why Lithium Could be the Best Thing Since Fluoride

Why lithium-enhanced water sounds mighty enticing.

By Erik Gunn and Matt Hrodey

An Oregon psychiatrist jokes that people should flock to Ashland, Ore., sip daily from the public fountain, and thereby receive the small dose of lithium contained in its waters. By the same logic, perhaps people could imbibe from faucets in select Wisconsin counties, where wells also include small amounts of the natural element widely used as a mood stabilizer and antipsychotic medication.

Jim Phelps, the Oregon psychiatrist and administrator of psycheducation.org, is such a fan of low doses of lithium that he prescribes them to patients who are clearly at risk for Alzheimer’s but show minimal cognitive impairment, to slow the disease’s advance. Sometimes, this horrifies his patients’ other doctors. What good could a mood stabilizer do?

The risks are well-known. Very high levels of lithium can interfere with kidney and thyroid functioning. On the positive side, it appears that the element – which is found in both well water and foods like legumes, pistachios, shrimp and kelp – encourages the brain to build new cells. And this seems to happen even at very low doses. A 2013 study in Brazil found that trace amounts of pharmaceutical lithium appeared to greatly slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease: Patients who received a micro-dose over 15 months stopped declining, whereas the group that didn’t scored progressively worse on a mental performance test. More studies have linked lithium’s presence in the local water to lower suicide rates, which is startling, because these levels are about one-thousandth of those prescribed to people with bipolar disorder.

“Given the magnitude of suffering that attends Alzheimer’s when it develops, and our complete lack of any other tools,” Phelps says, “I’m surprised this possibility doesn’t get more press.”

In Wisconsin, the state Department of Natural Resources, as well as suburban homeowners doing their own testing, have found trace amounts of lithium in well water in both Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno says the department doesn’t require water utilities to monitor their lithium levels, seeing as there are no federal standards for the substance. Municipal water typically contains only tiny amounts of it: For example, one would have to drink more than 30 gallons of Milwaukee water each day to consume as much lithium as participants in the Brazil study.

Geologic sampling has found lithium in a large aquifer in northeastern Wisconsin, according to geologist John Luczaj, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, but residential users aren’t drilling that deep. Overall, “there just aren’t that many data points,” he says, and it’s too soon to draw a map to where lithium-enhanced water can be found in Wisconsin.

So it might also be too soon to declare Lake Country or the North Woods the new Lourdes of lithium. Or to advocate for the universal lithification of municipal water. While the Brazil study suggests “micro-doses could be sufficient” for Alzheimer’s, Phelps says, “we have almost no idea” what the target dose should be.

‘A Drop Will Do’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a special issue from Milwaukee Magazine.

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.