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I have written extensively on lithium and its effectiveness in managing mood disorders, particularly Bipolar Disorder. It's also an excellent med for people with suicidal ideation, protects neurons in the brain, slows down aging, and may prevent Dementia.
However, like almost every other medication, it's not all rosy with lithium. It, too, has its side effects. But the good news is, you can significantly reduce the risks of side effects of lithium by using the drug in subtherapeutic doses.
But first, let's discuss some of these side effects
The common side effects of lithium are typically mild and go away by themselves. They're also more likely to occur when you start using the drug. And if you're on the right — subtherapeutic — dose, you may not have any issues using lithium. However, some people find that lithium makes them feel a bit numb and nauseous.
The common side effects of lithium include:
One possible reason for these side effects is that lithium affects the flow of sodium through nerves and muscles in the body. And sodium is associated with excitation.
Rarely, you may experience severe side effects from lithium because there's too much of it in your blood. This is why it's crucial to have your blood tested regularly to ensure safe levels.
The serious side effects of lithium include the following:
These are all symptoms of lithium toxicity, that is, when too much of it is in your blood that it becomes harmful. If you experience any of these side effects, call for help immediately.
Because lithium affects hydration and urination, when used over a long period, say 30-40 years, it may cause kidney damage and thyroid issues. But these side effects are typically at high doses. Even if you do get some kidney damage, it may be reversible. There are also medications to counteract the thyroid issues if they were to manifest.
Lithium taken in subtherapeutic doses significantly quells the risks of side effects. Anything below 0.6 mmol/L is considered subtherapeutic levels. And thankfully, much evidence supports that such low doses are pretty effective.
So, aim for as low a dose as does the job, preferably subtherapeutic levels, to prevent long-term adverse effects.
It's also good to drink plenty of fluids and minimize alcohol (as it can cause dehydration) when on lithium medication.
The best way to prevent problems is to check your blood lithium levels regularly for lithium toxicity. Also, check your thyroid levels. If the levels are just right, the risks of side effects are minimal. And if the levels rise at any point, your healthcare provider may suggest the best course of action.
Otherwise, lithium may prolong the life of organs overall.
While lithium is considered a miracle in psychiatry, not everyone is well-suited for this prescription. For example, lithium is not recommended in pregnant women, especially during the first trimester, where the risk of problems to the fetus is highest.
Nevertheless, your doctor may evaluate your health and determine if the benefits far outweigh the risks and may prescribe it to keep you well.
Lithium may not be recommended for you if:
Again, none of these situations completely preclude you from using lithium. It's up to your doctor to evaluate the severity of your condition and weigh that against the benefits of the drug.