Lithium in public drinking water may have surprising effect on suicide rate

LONDON – Lithium doesn’t sound like something you’d want to consume, but it’s actually more common in food than you’d think. Moreover, the chemical is proven in helping patients dealing with mental health conditions. Now, a new study finds higher levels of the naturally occurring substance in drinking water show ties to lowering the global suicide rate.

Lithium is a common treatment for mood disorders. It’s particularly useful when treating manic and depressive episodes of bipolar disorder. It’s also naturally found in sources like vegetables, grains, spices, and drinking water.

“It is promising that higher levels of trace lithium in drinking water may exert an anti-suicidal effect and have the potential to improve community mental health,” Anjum Memon of Brighton and Sussex Medical School says in a release. “The prevalence of mental health conditions and national suicide rates are increasing in many countries. Worldwide, over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and suicide is the leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24 years.”

Drinking water
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Growing evidence of lithium’s benefits

In the study, researchers review previous work on lithium levels in water and mental health. These studies include 1,286 regions within Austria, Greece, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, the U.K. and United States. The results find regions with higher amounts of lithium in their public drinking water have lower suicide rates.

Although the link between these two topics is new, the health benefits of naturally occurring lithium is not a secret. The study mentions an ancient Native American medicinal spring, known as Lithia Springs. The site is believed to have many different health benefits due to its high lithium content. The soft drink 7-Up also contained the chemical when it was first created in 1929. More recently, studies say lithium may contribute to lowering rates of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia cases.

“The levels of lithium in drinking water are far lower than those recommended when lithium is used as medicine although the duration of exposure may be far longer, potentially starting at conception,” researcher Allan Young explains. “These findings are also consistent with the finding in clinical trials that lithium reduces suicide and related behaviours in people with a mood disorder.”

Can this cure crumbling communities?

The study authors say the next step in this research may test how adding lithium supplements to the water in high-risk communities affects the public. This could greatly benefit areas battling higher crime rates, substance abuse issues, and mental health cases.

“This may provide further evidence to support the hypothesis that lithium could be used at the community level to reduce or combat the risk of these conditions,” says Memon.

The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

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