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Risks and Benefits of Taking Lithium for Anxiety

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
Risks and Benefits of Taking Lithium for Anxiety

Many medications designed to treat depression-related conditions are often also prescribed for anxiety conditions. Lithium salts are a component of many psychiatric medications for depression-related conditions including mania and bipolar depression, and their effectiveness is the standard against which other medications for these conditions have been measured since even before anxiety disorders were recognized as psychiatrically treatable.

The article below will explore the effects of lithium on the brain, as well as its potential negative side effects, to help gauge its potential benefits as well as its risk factors for people suffering from anxiety.

What is Lithium?

Lithium is just one of many options that a doctor may prescribe for your anxiety. It should never be taken without a prescription, and is not right for everyone. 

In its purest form, lithium is a soft, light and silvery-white metal belonging to the alkali group on the periodic table. Knowing this, it may seem strange that the lithium salts lithium carbonate, lithium citrate and lithium sulfate, all inorganic substances, are often prescribed by psychiatrists for oral ingestion. So why exactly do professionals suggest eating metallic compounds to overcome psychiatric conditions, and what are the risks?

Lithium in Your Body

While ingesting metallic substances can be dangerous, a dosage of 15–20 mg of lithium per kg of body weight falls below the level of toxicity for anyone eight years old and over, though in children the levels of lithium in the blood need to be closely monitored. In addition, when taken in the correct dosage, lithium is processed and released by the body usually within 24 hours, meaning that the metal will not become a part of your body in any harmful way if you take no more than the required dose.

While lithium is in your body, it affects neurotransmitters that are involved in the body’s stress reactions. The function of these neurotransmitters in stress reactions and lithium’s effects on them are outlined below.

Possible Side Effects

During the early stages of lithium treatment, side effects may include:

In the long term, lithium may also cause:

Drinking extra water to compensate for dehydration can reduce the number of symptoms experiences early on, while regular exercise and a healthy diet can help to control any weight gain that results. The lowest possible dose of lithium is recommended in order to limit and reduce the likelihood of negative side effects.

It is still important to note that weight gain and hypothyroidism (a condition that can also cause weight gain) can increase feelings of depression and may pose a risk if your anxiety is complicated by depression.

Though lithium is not addictive, overdosing can be highly dangerous. Too much lithium in the body functions as a poison, which is why it can be a risky medication if you suffer from anxiety complicated by depression. Similarly, lithium itself can have what's known as a "paradoxical" reaction where it actually creates more anxiety and depression, which is another important reason not to use lithium without talking to your doctor.

Lithium can take weeks to reach its full effectiveness. For this reason, supplementing lithium medication with healthy anxiety-reducing activities may help you to feel better in the meantime. Knowing about these potential alternatives to medication may help to prevent relapses if you are stopping lithium treatment, and are also useful to know about if you are looking to avoid medication entirely.

Lithium can have beneficial effects for people suffering from anxiety. However, because people with anxiety are at a higher risk for depression, it is good to bear in mind that special care must be taken to offset the potential side effects that may aggravate this condition even as the medication works to treat it. Supplementing your treatment with the above activities can help with this, as well as providing you with good anti-anxiety habits to carry with you into the future.

As always, please make sure that you consult with your doctor before considering lithium for your mental health issue.

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