Scientists have long known that lithium is a powerful anti-depressant. The medication is most notably used for the treatment of bipolar disorder.
It's known to stabilize moods and save people from suicidal tendencies. Fun fact: it was even included in the first formulation of the drink 7up back in 1929.
For a long time, researchers have speculated that small doses of the substance in water could have positive effects in populations including lesser suicide rates.
Now, a new study is bringing to light the fact that lithium in water does indeed lead to decreased suicide rates. The research is the first-ever meta-analysis of such studies.
"It is promising that higher levels of trace lithium in drinking water may exert an anti-suicidal effect and have the potential to improve community mental health," said the lead author of the work epidemiologist Anjum Memon from Brighton and Sussex Medical School.
‘The prevalence of mental health conditions and national suicide rates are increasing in many countries. Worldwide, over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and suicide is the leading cause of death among persons aged 15-24 years.’
The researchers collected data from 1,286 localities across Greece, Japan, the U.S., England, Italy, and Japan. The drinking water samples analyzed contained mean lithium levels that ranged from just 3.8 μg/L to 46.3 μg/L.
The lithium seemed to be correlated with decreased suicide rates despite the fact that the levels of lithium in drinking water were far lower than those recommended when lithium is used as a medicine.
This could be because the duration of exposure from water may be far longer, potentially starting at birth. Memon added that the next steps in the study may be testing the hypothesis by randomized community trials of lithium supplementation of the water supply.
The tests would focus particularly on areas with demonstrated high risk of mental health conditions including but not limited to criminal behavior, substance abuse, and suicide risks. The researcher added that lithium may even decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Although more studies need to be done, these first results offer a promising look into producing more mentally healthy communities. The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.