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Lithium in drinking water reduces suicide rate

A study carried out by the MedUni Vienna and recently published shows that when lithium is naturally found in drinking water, it markedly reduces the suicide rate. Researchers at the MedUni Vienna have, for the first time, successfully provided scientifically reliable evidence of this positive effect on the human psyche.

(Vienna, 1st June 2011) A study carried out by the MedUni Vienna and recently published shows that when lithium is naturally found in drinking water, it markedly reduces the suicide rate. Researchers at the MedUni Vienna have, for the first time, successfully provided scientifically reliable evidence of this positive effect on the human psyche.

In 2009 a Japanese study caused a great worldwide sensation in the media as it stated that lithium found naturally in drinking water would reduce the risk of suicide. However, due to a lack of methodical working practices the reliability of the results was quickly undermined. Dr. Nestor Kapusta from the University Department of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of the MedUni Vienna could now together with his research team substantiate reliably and scientifically the previously formulated supposition.

A large-scale, Austria-wide examination
The study, which was carried out recently and which has just been published, examined the situation in Austria. During the study the lithium values of 6,460 drinking water samples from the whole of Austria were compared with the suicide rates of the individual districts (99). During this a significant link was found and that was that the higher the lithium values in the drinking water, the lower the suicide rate. This correlation is still significant if socio-economic factors such as income or psychosocial care, which have a well-known effect on the suicide rate, are also taken into account. The researchers’ conclusion is that, alongside other causes, lithium in drinking water seems to be a possible independent influential factor.

A positive effect in the smallest amounts - The reason is still unknown
The crux of the matter is that the study by the MedUni Vienna could confirm the Japanese study’s findings. The fact that lithium has a positive effect on the human psyche has been known for decades. In no other substance is there such well proven evidence of an effect which protects people from the risk of suicide when compared with lithium. “However, what is fascinating and new in our findings is that lithium, even in natural amounts as a trace element, could have measurable effects on health,” according to Kapusta. “The doses used in therapy are approximately 100 times higher than the natural occurrence in drinking water. It is therefore still completely unclear how natural lithium in drinking water triggers such a strong physiological effect, although it is, to all intents and purposes, at a dose which is 100 times weaker. How this mechanism works is a new and interesting question for us researchers.”

A warning against artificial additions to drinking water
During the discussion of the Japanese study in 2009 the question was quickly posed whether drinking water should be enriched with lithium, in order to thereby protect against the risk of suicides. The often heard argument is that lithium could be added in a similar way as fluoride to water (for the prevention of bone diseases) or of iodine to salt (for the prevention of thyroid diseases). The authors of the Austrian study are distancing themselves expressly from such considerations and warn against rash conclusions. This stance is explained by Kapusta, “Clinical studies as well as methodical and extensive cohort studies are required in order to endorse such a recommendation. For example the question of possible side effects is still unknown. A current study shows that even a slight increase in the thyroid hormone levels in people who live in regions where there is lithium in the drinking water leads to blood concentrations which are too high. Higher lithium levels could therefore indeed have a positive effect on mood, but also have other negative effects at the same time. Our findings are therefore certainly going to prompt numerous further examinations.”

Lithium is no miracle cure
The researchers of the MedUni Vienna also stress that lithium is neither a panacea, nor can be. Kapusta adds, “For effective suicide prevention there is still, as before, a whole raft of measures which have to be implemented. A person with suicidal tendencies primarily needs to have a contact person, a doctor or a psychotherapist on hand. The wide spectrum of effective prevention options therefore ranges from improvements in psychiatric and psychotherapeutic care, and general, diligent reporting by the media and raising the general public’s awareness, up to the restriction of the means to commit suicide such as for example through targeted firearms laws or the reduction in the packaging sizes of certain medications.” The recently initiated political discussion regarding the establishing of the existing Suicide Prevention Plan Austria (SUPRA) is a chance to finally implement known scientific expertise nationwide.

Background information: a chemical element as medication
Lithium has been extensively examined for its therapeutic use for certain mental health illnesses over a period of approximately 60 years. It is suited for use as a mood-stabilising medication in cases of bipolar disorders (manic-depressive disorders), as it stabilises the patient’s mood and takes away the peaks during episodes of the disease. Its positive effect in cases of depression is also known, where it is also implemented for suicide prevention. More recently the protective effects against Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative and inflammatory diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis are being researched. Although the therapeutic effect of lithium is well documented, the international scientific community still knows relatively little about how this effect is actually achieved. It is currently being examined for example whether and how lithium has an effect on the growth of new brain cells. The significance of lithium as an important factor in the therapy and prevention of mental health disorders is indisputable. This is underlined by the publication of the current lithium study of the MedUni Vienna in the internationally renowned specialist journal “The British Journal of Psychiatry”.

» Lithium in drinking water and suicide mortality
Nestor D. Kapusta, Nilufar Mossaheb, Elmar Etzersdorfer, Gerald Hlavin, Kenneth Thau, Matthäus Willeit, Nicole Praschak-Rieder, Gernot Sonneck and Katharina Leithner-Dziubas
The British Journal of Psychiatry 2011 198: 346-350; doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.091041

Dr. Nestor Kapusta, Erstautor, Universitätsklinik für Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie, MedUni Wien
Univ. Prof. Dr. Gernot Sonneck, Studienleiter, Institut für Medizinische Psychologie, MedUni Wien
Ass. Priv. Katharina Leithner-Dziubas, Studienleiterin, Universitätsklinik für Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie, MedUni Wien