There Is A Mood-Altering Drug In The Water Supply, And You Might Be Drinking It

Image via Flickr/ Dominik Morbitzer

What do you know about lithium? You might remember from chemistry class that it’s an element on the periodic table. Or maybe you heard your bipolar friend talk about its therapeutic properties. Some people might even think lithium is just a really cool song by Nirvana. All of those assumptions would be correct, but what if lithium was something added to our drinking water based on the theory it could benefit our mental and emotional well-beings? As Anna Fels described in her recent op-ed for the New York Times, studies support just such a proposition.

According to Fels, the naturally-occurring element lithium is already present in the United States’ water at concentrations as much as .170 milligrams per liter. While that amount is less than one-thousandth of the minimum daily dose given to bipolar patients, scientists have found evidence that even such tiny doses of lithium can promote brain health, improve mood and even decrease the rate of suicide—the 10th leading cause of death in the United States in 2011.

As early as the 1970s, studies found that animals with minimal amounts of lithium in their diets had higher mortality rates and more abnormalities of reproduction and behavior. Likewise, a 1990 study found that residents of Texas counties with the least amount of lithium in their water had significantly higher rates of suicide, homicide and rape when compared to people whose water had higher levels of lithium. In fact, the group that drank water with the highest level of lithium had almost 40-percent fewer suicides than the group with the lowest lithium level.

Almost 20 years later, a Japanese study that looked at 18 municipalities with more than a million inhabitants over a five-year period confirmed the earlier study’s finding: Suicide rates were inversely correlated with the lithium content in the local water supply,” Fels wrote. “More recently, there have been corroborating studies in Greece and Austria.”

According to Fels, the authors of the Japanese study speculated that lithium exposure might actually protect and enhance the growth of neurons. A further study found that therapeutic doses of lithium administered to treat mood disorders correlated with increased gray matter among bipolar patients’ brains. Those authors, too, speculated that lithium may promote the growth of neurons.

Furthermore, additional studies have found that those who take prescriptions of lithium are less likely to suffer from dementia.

Lithium is, by far, the most proven drug to keep neurons alive, in animals and in humans, consistently and with many replicated studies,” Tufts University School of Medicine’s Dr. Nassir Ghaemi wrote, according to Fels. “If lithium prevents dementia, then we may have overlooked a very simple means of preventing a major public health problem.”

If lithium were ever artificially added to a water supply, much as chloride is today, Fels points out that it wouldn’t be the first time. 7-Up, in fact, was original called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda and contained lithium citrate as recent as 1950. Other commercial drinks, including beer, were also made with lithia water. Lithia Springs, Ga., was even a sacred site to Native Americans, seemingly because of the curative powers of its naturally lithium-enriched water.

Some scientists have, in fact, proposed that lithium be recognized as an essential trace element nutrient,” Fels concluded. “Who knows what the impact on our society would be if micro-dose lithium were again part of our standard nutritional fare? What if it were added back to soft drinks or popular vitamin brands or even put into the water supply? The research to date strongly suggests that suicide levels would be reduced, and even perhaps other violent acts. And maybe the dementia rate would decline. We don’t know because the research hasn’t been done.”