Depression is a serious condition that has many negative consequences and that in severe cases can be life threatening even. Suffering from depression can lead to sleeping problems, lifestyle changes, stress, poor diet and in the worst case scenarios eventually suicide. Treating depression then is highly important and this should consist both of therapy in order to address the root cause of the problem and to teach valuable coping skills, as well as through the use of medication in order to control the symptoms during this process and prevent patients from doing harm to themselves or others.
To this end there are many forms of medication used to help control depression, and these can be used in different combinations to achieve varying results. The use of lithium is something that may be attempted when other forms of medication have proven ineffective and may be used either to stabilize mood or to ‘augment’ other antidepressants by making their effect more potent.
How Does Lithium Work in Treating Depression?
It is not entirely known how lithium works in treating depression, however it is chemically similar to salt (which is also sometimes recommended for treating depression) and like salt it may help to improve transmission between neurons and the way that nerve cells respond to certain chemical messengers.
Conventionally lithium is associated with bipolar disorder – a disorder in which patients fluctuate between varying ends of the spectrum experiencing bouts of mania and then severe depression. Lithium has been found in several studies to be effective in helping to treat mania in particular, and to stabilize the mood overall. Furthermore it can also be used in order to enhance the effect of other antidepressants which it achieves by turning ‘nonresponder’ cells into ‘responders’ so that the effect of these antidepressants is more widespread.
There are however also side effects associated with lithium and this is the reason that it is not the first port of call when treating depression. Normally lithium will only be used when other forms of medication have begun to prove unsuccessful.
Lithium is not an addictive substance, however it is possible to overdose. Before you begin a course of lithium, your doctor will want to know your medical history and will need to take a blood sample and possible urine sample. Too much lithium in the blood can lead to serious side effects.
The normal side effects associated with lithium are:
- Dry mouth
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- Weakness and lethargy
These side effects will usually subside after a while as your body adapts, at which point you may then start to notice frequent urination, weight gain and water retention (causing swollen ankles). In some cases lithium can lead to an underactive thyroid which is a condition in which the metabolism slows resulting in less fat burning and less energy. This is a separate condition that then needs to be managed through the use of thyroid medications and is of course undesirable.