What Long-Term Use Of Lithium Can Do To Your Body

Britney Spears shocked the public when she revealed in a 2021 court hearing the horrors of her conservatorship. She recalled that after she had refused to perform at a show in Las Vegas, her therapist pulled her previous medications and prescribed lithium (via Insider). "He took me off my normal meds I've been on for five years," she explained. "And lithium is a very, very strong and completely different medication compared to what I was used to." She also said lithium made her feel "drunk."

Lithium is typically prescribed for people with bipolar disorder, depression, or mania, according to the National Health Service. It can also be prescribed for people showing aggressive behaviors or signs of self-harm. To monitor the amount of lithium in your blood, doctors will take blood tests to ensure the dose is just right for the patient.

Spears also noted that she believed lithium shouldn't be used for the long-term, but people can safely take lithium for years when it's safely managed, a psychiatrist wrote in Everyday Health. Feeling "drunk," as Spears said, isn't typical of lithium. Lithium might make you feel drowsy and less alert, but feeling overly confused could indicate lithium toxicity. Too much lithium can be toxic to your body, particularly your kidneys or other organs.

Too much lithium can cause harmful side effects

People with too much lithium in the blood might experience side effects such as excessive thirst, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting, according to a 2023 article in Pharmaceuticals (Basel). Others might experience tremors in their hands. Taking lithium might also result in weight gain after long-term use.

Before you begin lithium treatment, your doctor will check the health of your kidneys and thyroid. Long-term use of lithium can lead to kidney problems, including reduced kidney function. Your doctor should continually monitor the levels of lithium in your system and the health of your kidneys if you're taking lithium over a long period of time.

Long-term use of lithium can also impair the function of your thyroid. You could develop hypothyroidism, which means your thyroid gland doesn't produce and release enough of the thyroid hormone. Lithium use could also enlarge your thyroid. If your doctor notices problems with your thyroid, you might take thyroid medication or discontinue taking lithium.

Long-term use of lithium can have benefits

According to Everyday Health, it's a myth that lithium is more dangerous than other psychiatric drugs, simply because all medications used to treat mental health conditions have side effects. Many patients do experience a waiting period before the positive benefits show up, and oftentimes, people taking lithium will be given another medication that works much faster until the right levels of lithium take effect.

Lithium can reduce a person's risk of suicide, particularly after taking the medication for two years, according to Pharmaceuticals (Basel). Lithium also has anti-viral properties and has been shown to resist oral herpes. People taking lithium might also have a reduced risk of COVID-19 infection.

Although Spears said she felt "drunk" when she was taking lithium, taking lithium for the long term might actually protect the brain against dementia. Lithium can increase gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, and hippocampus in the brain, and people treated with lithium have lower rates of dementia.

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