While it would be a stretch to say that you run on lithium, you may stand to benefit greatly from it. Human biochemistry is one of the most complicated systems in existence. Certainly, itís the most studied of complicated systems. As the tools available to biotechnologists increase in power exponentially, the pace of discovery in all the biological sciences is increasing dramatically. The science of nutrition is no exception. In fact, it appears to be one of the biggest and earliest beneficiaries.
The term bioinformatics refers to the application of computer technologies such as advanced correlation analysis to biological data. In conjunction with increasingly sophisticated databank software, the ability to collect more accurate and meaningful data has also improved due to the falling cost of high-tech biotech tools. One field that is experiencing major transformations due to bioinformatics is the science of nutrition. As scientists turn their investigative attention to our diets, weíre often very surprised to learn which chemicals are beneficial and which are detrimental.
Over the past decade, itís become increasingly clear that lithium has various neuroprotective abilities, meaning that it helps preserve the health and function of the electrically activated neurons of our nervous systems. Neurons differ from most cells in that they do not replicate via cell division, or mitosis. Instead, they can increase through a process called neurogenesis that involves the neural stem cells and progenitor cells. At one time, it was believed that adults couldnít grow additional neurons, but recent discoveries, including the mitochondrial breakthroughs Iíve written about here, have shown this not to be true. Nevertheless, the health and function of our neurons is of critical importance because these critically important cells give us our power to think and sense.
Lithium, a metal so light that bars of the element float in water, is found in varying concentrations in soils. People ingest lithium either directly through drinking water or indirectly by way of plant foods that absorb local water.
Another possible way to consume lithium is by smoking tobacco that has high lithium content. Let me be very clear that Iím not recommending that you smoke anything. In fact, Iím recommending strongly that you donít. Nevertheless, it may explain the unique reputation that Cuban tobacco has among many cigar smokers.
Many cigar connoisseurs believe that Cuban cigars stand apart from the rest. This is true despite the fact that seeds from Cuban tobaccos have been replanted elsewhere with very similar climates. Those tobaccos do not, however, enjoy the same esteem. One theory is that high lithium concentrations in the Cuban soil, and therefore tobacco, promote neuroactive and pleasurable effects.
While the lithium cigar theory is only interesting speculation, there is an abundance of scientific evidence showing that areas with more lithium in the ground and water correlate with lower incidences of violent crime and suicide. To understand the weight of this relationship, itís important to put it in pharmaceutical context.
Lithium has been successfully used for years to treat disorders such as bipolar depression. The logical follow-up question, therefore, is whether nutritional lithium would benefit the general population as well. Another way to phrase this issue is whether or not lithium is an essential nutrient. In my opinion, there is now an accumulation of evidence indicating that it is.
In fact, lithium might be just as important, if not more so, than other minerals in our diets such as sodium or calcium. On the surface, this might sound odd since lithium is best known as an anode in batteries. It is, however, only part of lithiumís story.
Lithium is the lightest of all metals, being composed of only three protons and either three or four neutrons, depending on the isotope. More specifically, lithium belongs to the same group of alkali metals as the essentials, sodium and potassium. In fact, if you take a look at the periodic table you can see that lithium sits in the column all the way to the far left directly on top of the essential nutrients sodium and potassium and near magnesium and calcium.
The biochemical relevancy of lithium and its neighbors represents far more than mere coincidence, however. Elements are arranged on the periodic table by similar characteristics, so if we think about the element lithium from a physical perspective, its role in our bodies seems natural.
In fact, it most certainly is natural. While lithium has been found over the counter in treatment for bipolar disorder, depression, and even cluster headaches since the 1800s, it has been present in our ground soil and water supply for much longer. More recently, however, we have learned that living in an area with particularly high levels of lithium in the drinking water has statistically significant benefits, as theBritish Journal of Psychiatry makes clear.
This study from 1990 looked at 27 counties in Texas. It found that the geographical regions with higher levels of lithium in the water, and sediment, demonstrated a suicide rate 82% lower than in regions without lithium in the water supply. That study has been followed up much more recently by a Japanese study looking at lithium levels in tap water in 18 municipalities of the Oita prefecture and the suicide standardized mortality ratio (SMR). The findings were in complete agreement with the Texan study, reinforcing that lithium negatively relates with suicide rates in the general population. That is, as lithium levels go up, suicide rates go down.
Suicide is just one manifestation of neurological disorder, though. A larger Greek study published in 2003 addressed deficiencies in the British and Japanese studies, finding a significant inverse relationship between natural lithium levels in drinking water to homicides, rapes, drug crimes, and, in juveniles, the rates of runaways.
As the abstract to this study references, lithium has also been found to be useful in the prevention and treatment of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrigís disease. This study reports a correlation between low lithium levels and Parkinsonís disease. Perhaps most exciting is the emergence of evidence that lithium helps prevent dementia, a particularly important area as Alzheimerís disease is the most expensive disease in the US as well as the fastest-growing threat to an increasingly older population. Here are two studies about this important subject.
Our brains are hugely complex chemistry sets, the parts and functions of which we have only begun to completely understand. Because of this, learning of lithiumís benefits doesnít particularly surprise me, but it does increase my interest in chemicals we might now perceive to be biochemically inert. One of the biggest surprises for me personally in the last few years is the emergence of extremely powerful and efficacious naturally occurring substances such as anatabine and oxaloacetate.
Lest you run off to buy one of the many available lithium supplements, however, I should point out that there are still things about lithium that we donít know. There are hints, for example, that lithium may worsen some conditions, such as thyroiditis, in some populations. Iíd love to see this sorted out as soon as possible.
To learn more about the new research driving Patrick's investigations at his Transformational Technology Alert letter for Mauldin Economics, click here.