Meta-Analysis Confirms Association Between Lithium in Drinking Water and Suicide Rates

Lithium is not only used to power rechargeable batteries, but it can also be found in drinking water and in certain drugs prescribed by physicians. Traces of lithium penetrate basically every rock on our planet and are found in our food and water supply. Now, as per new research, this invisible element could have a rather significant effect on our lives.

For many decades, lithium has been usually prescribed as medication for people with mood disorders, such as bipolar, because it allegedly has the ability to stabilize moods. The doses used in psychiatry are rather high – at least 200 milligrams per day – and side-effects have been monitored.

Is Lithium Really Helping?

Some research has claimed that even microdoses of the element, such as 400 micrograms per day, can generate an improvement in mood, and that’s why the treatment kept being prescribed. Since the 1990s, researchers have been wondering whether the lithium in drinking water supplies all over the world could trigger effects at the level of the entire population, such as lower suicide rates, decreased violence, and even less dementia.

Throughout the years, a bunch of observational or ecological studies have suggested a link between higher levels of lithium in the public water supply, and lower rates of suicide mortality in population.

Lithium ingots with a thin layer of black nitride tarnish. [Image: Wikipedia]
Now, a team of scientists in the U.K. has published the first meta-analysis of such studies, confirming this association. There’s no clue yet as to why this might be the case, but it is an interesting path to tread.

“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,” says lead author of the review, epidemiologist Anjum Memon from Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

The team searched researches, ending up with 15 studies they used in a qualitative synthesis, reduced in size further for a meta-analysis of nine studies.

Their analysis included data from 1,286 regions across Japan, Austria, the U.S., England, Greece, Italy, and Lithuania. The average lithium levels found in the drinking water samples ranged from 3.8 micrograms per liter (μg/L) to 46.3 μg/L, with a few zones peaking above 80 μg/L.

This is Only a Theory

A broad part of the numbers unveiled the fact that higher lithium levels naturally found in drinking water were indeed correlated with lower levels of suicide mortality in the region, which is known as an inverse association.

Lithium in oil. [Image: Wikipedia]
Obviously, as with any analysis of the available literature, the results have significant warnings. The team highlights that ecological research are carried out to figure out a theory and not an answer because they are basically just posing the question.

“They are subject to confounding as information on potential confounder(s) may not be available, and associations at the population level do not necessarily represent associations at the individual level (ecological fallacy),” the team writes.

Considering their findings, the scientists do recommend randomized community trials as a ‘possible means of testing the hypothesis,’ along with analyses into food sources that contain lithium.

As mentioned, there’s still no clue how lithium even works, why it can – theoretically – have a beneficial effect on an individual’s mood levels, and whether the anti-suicidal effects of the element are separate or not.

This may also sound like the beginnings of a government ‘conspiracy,’ as there are numerous experts willing to urge caution with any trials. Obviously, there’s almost no data regarding how this element works and so on, which is in itself a big question mark when it comes to government-approved testings that supplement drinking water supplies with lithium in certain communities.

The review was published in The British Journal of Psychiatry. If this story has raised concerns or you need to talk to someone, here’s a list where you may be able to find a crisis hotline in your country.

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