Natural lithium is an over-the-counter supplement containing the lithium ion and orotic acid, or B13. Sold under various trade names, manufacturers advertise lithium orotate as an effective treatment for everything from headaches to gout to mood disorders. Though it typically contains lower doses of lithium than comparable prescription medications, the lithium supplement can cause differences in absorption and elimination, which may lead to toxicity. Consumers should consult with a health care provider before using natural lithium supplements.
Fish, meats, milk, and eggs, along with potatoes and other vegetables contain naturally occurring lithium. German physician, Dr. Hans A. Nieper, who performed limited research on natural lithium orotate in the 1970s, believed that lithium combined with vitamin B13 changed the way the body metabolized the compound. When prescription formulations of lithium carbonate or lithium chloride enter the gastrointestinal tract, lithium separates from any other chemical components. Lithium orotate, on the other hand remains bound together.
Dr. Nieper concluded that the compound's ability to remain intact enhanced the drug's ability to permeate cellular membranes and interact with small structures within the cell known as organelles. He also postulated that besides regulating cellular function, natural lithium regulated calcium and sodium ions, which improved neurotransmission, normalizing brain function related to mood. A more recent study concluded that the natural lithium supplement helps individuals who suffer from alcohol addiction to curb their intake of alcohol and remain sober for 12 months to 10 years.
Some psychiatrists express concern over the safety of natural lithium as tests performed on laboratory animals indicate that the kidneys do not eliminate the compound as efficiently as they do prescription lithium preparations. One study found that while the kidneys in test subjects eliminated all traces of a lithium carbonate dose after 24 hours, blood and brain cell samples from animals that had received lithium orotate indicated the formulation remained in the body. Kidney tests revealed that animals given natural lithium exhibited decreased overall renal function. As the compound may affect kidney function, possible cumulative effects may occur, resulting in toxicity.
Commonly reported side effects of lithium orotate supplements include lethargy, loss of appetite, and muscle weakness. A documented case of toxicity indicates that a patient experienced nausea, vomiting, and muscle tremors. Lithium may also produce thyroid and cardiac abnormalities, along with seizures and coma when taken in excessive quantities. Physicians caution that older patients and individuals with renal insufficiency have a greater risk of developing adverse effects.
A number of prescription medications may interact with natural lithium. In particular, people using the supplement simultaneously with medications that reduce excess body fluid or formulations that lower blood sodium levels may be affected. Physicians also warn that since over-the-counter supplements do not require federal regulation, additional ingredients in a supplement might also cause adverse effects or interact with prescription medication.