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There's a Mood-Altering Drug in the Water Supply and You Probably Didn't Even Know It

"Appears to have important medical implications."

Putting fluoride in the water to prevent tooth decay has been a long-time practice that is still not without its controversy, but another substance that's associated with mood-altering effects could be lurking in your the drinking supply — and it got there naturally.

Studies have associated higher levels of naturally occurring lithium in the water supply with some health benefits. (Photo credit: YouTube) Studies have associated higher levels of naturally occurring lithium in the water supply with some health benefits. (Photo credit: YouTube)

Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, wrote in a New York Times op-ed over the weekend that lithium, an antimanic drug that decreases abnormal brain activity, is present in varying levels in the water supply and "has been largely ignored for over half a century." If you didn't know, lithium was also included in early recipes of the soda 7Up.

The drug "appears to have important medical implications" in water, Fels continued in her article "Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?"

"Lithium is a naturally occurring element, not a molecule like most medications, and it is present in the United States, depending on the geographic area, at concentrations that can range widely, from undetectable to around .170 milligrams per liter," Fels wrote. "This amount is less than a thousandth of the minimum daily dose given for bipolar disorders and for depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants. Although it seems strange that the microscopic amounts of lithium found in groundwater could have any substantial medical impact, the more scientists look for such effects, the more they seem to discover. Evidence is slowly accumulating that relatively tiny doses of lithium can have beneficial effects. They appear to decrease suicide rates significantly and may even promote brain health and improve mood."

While higher lithium levels have been associated with some health and community benefits — like lower suicide rates and homicide rates — Felts wrote that these studies have failed to gain much attention in the scientific community and in the general public at large.

"When the data from [a] Japanese study was reanalyzed in a second publication, the authors concluded that those people with higher levels of lithium in their water supply had lower levels of 'all-cause mortality.' Why have these findings been so little discussed in the medical, psychiatric and public health communities?" she asked.

Fels wrote that as a psychiatrist she has found the drug to be a "hard sell" even to patients who would really benefit from its effects. She also speculated because it is cheap and relatively abundant that there has been little push because pharmaceuticals would not have much to gain from it.

"Research on a simple element like lithium that has been around as a medication for over half a century and as a drink for millenniums may not seem like a high priority, but it should be," Fels wrote.

Read her whole op-ed in the New York Times.

Front page image via Shutterstock.

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