Drugs & Medications

Risks and Benefits of Taking Lithium for Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

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.

  • Norepinephrine Norepinephrine is usually responsible for increasing the heart rate and sending blood enriched with sugar energy or glucose to tensing muscles during the fight or flight response that can occur when you are afraid of something, sometimes resulting in panic attacks. Lithium limits the amount of norepinephrine that the body can process, which decreases the severity of the anxiety symptoms caused by the body’s fear response.
  • Serotonin The more serotonin is present in your brain, the more relaxed you are. Research has discovered that men have more serotonin receptors in their brains than women, which is part of the reason why women are more prone to anxiety disorders than men. Lithium improves the body’s ability to synthesize serotonin. This simply means that the body’s levels of serotonin increase in response to lithium, which has the effect of improving mood and reducing feelings of anxiousness.

Possible Side Effects

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

  • Dryness of the mouth
  • Mild weakness and/or shaking
  • More frequent urination
  • Dehydration (headaches, nausea)

In the long term, lithium may also cause:

  • Increased appetite and thirst
  • Weight gain
  • Hypothyroidism

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.

  • Pick an Enjoyable Exercise Going to a gym can be pricey and sound like a lot of work. Fortunately, exercise can come in almost any form you can think of. Whether you choose swimming, biking, jumping rope or mountain climbing, doing it for at least 30 minutes 3 times a week will help your body stay fit, as well as causing it to naturally trigger the release of serotonin in the brain, mimicking the effects of lithium without any dangerous potential side effects. NOTE: If you are taking lithium and also exercising regularly, it is especially important that you drink extra water to compensate for lithium’s side effect of dehydration.
  • Make a Diet Plan Most people cringe when they hear the word “diet,” but usually it’s because they associate it with fad diets that involve something like eating only carrots or starving themselves. A good diet should require neither. Picking a diet that is right for you means picking one that allows you to eat a healthy amount as well as a healthy variety of foods, giving your body the nutrients it needs while keeping your mood from being affected by malnutrition. Eating right will keep your body feeling good and better suited to handle any anxiety symptoms that crop up unexpectedly.
  • Write About It When you are feeling anxious or undergoing the physical and mental changes that can occur while starting or stopping a medication, writing about it can help to settle your mind. While it’s funny to think that what essentially amounts to “talking to yourself” can actually make you feel less crazy, it is absolutely true. Seeing your thought patterns written out can help you spot the parts where your logic seems fuzzy, or catch obsessive thoughts that repeat themselves and address those parts directly, either by writing about them specifically or by consulting with a mental health professional.

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.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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