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Lithium is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and carried to all tissues of the body and brain. It is excreted through the kidneys. Because sodium is also passed out through the kidneys and affects lithium secretion, a normal sodium balance is necessary to maintain a lithium balance as well. If there is an insufficient amount of sodium in the body, the lithium builds up and can become toxic.

Besides avoiding a low-salt diet, patients receiving lithium therapy for bipolar disorder are cautioned to drink alcohol in moderation and to discuss all over-the-counter and prescription medicine with their psychiatrists, since some antibiotics and anti-inflammatory agents like ibuprofen can increase lithium levels in the bloodstream. The use of lithium during pregnancy presents certain risks. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is sometimes recommended for pregnant patients who have been taking lithium as treatment for bipolar disorder. Older persons on lithium and low-salt diets must also be cautious.

Possible side effects of lithium therapy are stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hand tremors, thirst, fatigue, and muscle weakness. Some patients report weight gain while on lithium and a thyroid condition may develop, but can be easily treated with thyroid replacement hormones.

By and large, lithium treatment has been an effective drug for patients suffering from bipolar disorder. Many remain in treatment for extended periods of time without any harmful side effects, and most importantly, are able to lead normal and productive lives without hospitalization.



Bohn, John. Lithium and Manic Depression. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1990.

Goodwin, Frederick K., and Kay Redfield Jamison. Manic-Depressive Illness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Jamison, Kay Redfield. Touched with Fire. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Jefferson, James W., and John H. Greist. Lithium and Manic Depression: A Guide. Madison, WI: Madison Institute of Medicine, 1999.

Papolos, Demitri F., and Janice Papolos. Overcoming Depression. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Schou, Mogens. Lithium Treatment of Manic-Depressive Illness. 5th rev. ed. New York: Basel, 1993.


Dinan, Timothy G. "Lithium in Bipolar Mood Disorder." British Medical Journal 324, no. 7344 (2002): 989.

Sajatovic, M. "Treatment of Bipolar Disorder in Older Adults." International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 17, no. 9 (2002): 865-873.

Vita Richman


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Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

—Administration of a low dose electric current to the head in conjunction with muscle relaxants to produce convulsions. A treatment method whose underlying action is still not fully understood, it has proven effective in relieving symptoms of some severe psychiatric disorders for which no other treatment has been effective, for example, severe depression.

Manic-depressive illness

—Bipolar disorder, a condition where the patient exhibits both an excited state called mania and a depressed state.


—A mental illness characterized by thought disorder, distancing from reality, and sometimes delusions and hallucinations.

Unipolar depression

—A mental illness in which the patient suffers from depression only.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLithium - History Of Use, John Cade, Administration, Precautions