Should I be afraid to take lithium?

Lithium has a reputation. When I was first prescribed it, I felt a sense of fear and also — somehow — a sense of achievement, like I had won the lottery for crazy. When you hear about lithium, it’s often to stress that it is only for those top shelf mental illnesses; and it is good for that, however, it’s not necessarily true that you’re on the top shelf just because you’re starting lithium. A lot of people take lithium. On some occasions it might be the first medication tried. There are a few things to know about lithium in order to make truly informed choices about what you’re getting into.

It’s highly effective

Lithium is one of the most effective medications for bipolar disorder. Which medication is the best varies by person, and a lot of people have success with anticonvulsants like Lamictal. But for many people, the most effective medication is lithium, and its effectiveness has been well-documented for many years (it was first used in psychiatry in 1949). According to one study, about 30% of people who try lithium witness a complete recovery, while 60% see some improvement.

Unlike some other medications, lithium isn’t just a treatment for symptoms of mania; it actually prevents future mood episodes. Relapses become less frequent and shorter. There is some evidence that lithium has a protective effect in the brain.

Lithium has a decent chance of working for any type of bipolar disorder, but there are some people in particular who are very likely to be lithium responders. Those people tend to have:

  • Fewer hospitalizations prior to starting lithium
  • Later age of onset
  • An episodic course (moods cycle and then resolve for a while, as opposed to chronic cycling)
    • About 44% of people with an episodic course have complete remission on lithium, compared to 15% of people with a non-episodic (chronic) course.
    • In one study, 90% of lithium responders who experienced full recovery had complete remission of mood symptoms in between episodes before starting lithium.
  • Mania occurs before depression (mood cycling starts with mania)
  • Strong family history of bipolar disorder and/or a family history of lithium responsiveness
    • One study found that 35% of patients without a family history of lithium response had a complete recovery (similar to other studies mentioned), but among those with a family history of lithium response, that number jumped up to 67% full recovery.

Yes, you’ll get blood drawn

The dosage of lithium is based on how much lithium is in your blood, not how many milligrams are in the pill. The therapeutic window (the space in between the effective dose and the toxic dose) for lithium is much more narrow than most other drugs, so you’ll have to get blood tests frequently, especially when you’re still trying to figure out what dose is best for you.

If you’re afraid of needles, you will probably overcome that fear.

Because lithium blood levels are the most important factor in dosage, it’s probably pointless to try comparing doses with any bipolar friends. Their minimum and maximum dose is probably different than your minimum and maximum dose, so you’re working with two different scales. The middle of their dose range isn’t the middle of your dose range.

Side effects

No doubt, lithium has side effects. The good news is that if you find a low dose is effective for you, you might experience few or no side effects. If you’re on a high dose, it’s more likely that you’ll experience some side effects. These could include:

  • Hand tremors. This can make your handwriting different, and makes it very hard to put Jello in the fridge.
  • Nausea and vomiting. This tends to happen at quite high doses, and it may be a sign that your dose is too high; however, switching to the extended release version of lithium may help.
    • It’s worth noting that your dose can get too high for a variety of reasons, including dehydration; taking ibuprofren or other NSAIDs (you should probably switch to using acetominophen); or climbing a mountain and reaching a very high altitude. That last one hasn’t happened to me personally.
    • If you do actually vomit, it might be very aggressive vomiting and it always seems to come on suddenly.
  • Brain fog. Attention and memory problems come naturally to bipolar disorder, but lithium makes them worse. You may feel that your brain is just working really slowly, and it’s hard to concentrate or read. (Some people also have visual distortions on lithium that make reading even more difficult. I find it easier to read large print.)

In conclusion

Many people are afraid to take lithium, but some experts argue that it’s actually under-used today due to the public perception of it. So, in my opinion, it’s certainly worth trying. Most people won’t experience too many problems; if you’re on a high dose, you might experience some weird stuff, but to me it’s worth it for reducing my mood symptoms, and all of the weird stuff is manageable if you make some small adjustments to your life.

References

Tighe, S. K., Mahon, P. B., & Potash, J. B. (2011). Predictors of lithium response in bipolar disorder. Therapeutic advances in chronic disease2(3), 209–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/2040622311399173

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