Treating Bipolar Disorder With Lithium

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There’s no cure for bipolar disorder, a severe mental illness characterized by extreme, uncontrollable mood swings, to the point of occasional psychosis. For sufferers of bipolar disorder, the typical treatment lies in a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

The most common medication given to bipolar sufferers is lithium. The psychiatric profession has been treating bipolar disorder with lithium for longer than 50 years. Legendary US musician Kurt Cobain, who was a victim of bipolar disorder himself, wrote a song about lithium, titled, “Lithium.” Cobain’s experience with the drug, and with the psychiatric profession, had not been a positive one. The singer lapsed into heroin addiction as a result of the pervasive depression that would, too often, take control of his life.

Eventually, Kurt Cobain took his own life. In this way, he became part of a melancholy statistic: 15% of individuals with untreated bipolar manic-depression end up committing suicide, either because of a depressive episode, or because of the havoc that this mental illness typically wreaks on their lives. With Cobain, Bipolar manic depression claimed one more victim.

However, despite the negative publicity given this substance by the Nirvana song, many bipolar patients have actually responded well to lithium. To this day, no one knows exactly why the drug works, but it does. Lithium is effective at treating both the manic and the depressive phases of bipolar disorder. The side effects of lithium are its only drawback. However, under the care of a trained psychiatrist, these side effects typically lessen and disappear over time.

The problem with lithium is that it needs to be administered in very precise dosages. A bipolar person’s body needs just enough lithium in it to function at a stable level without any unpleasant or toxic effects. If there is too little lithium in the body, it doesn’t work as a mood stabilizer. If there is too much lithium in the body, it poisons the body.

Unfortunately, the percentage of lithium in the body depends very strongly on the amount of water in the body. The effects of Lithium are so sensitive to the body’s water level, individuals with a prescription need to pay attention to how much they drink. If a person taking lithium doesn’t drink enough water, that person’s lithium levels quickly rise to the point of causing many undesirable side effects.

The negative effects of lithium begin with weight gain and thirst (because the substance, itself, tends to dehydrate the person ingesting it). They also sometimes include feelings of weakness and tremors, along with occasional blurry sight. As the amount of lithium in a person’s body reaches toxic levels, symptoms will start to include vomiting and total loss of coordination. If this happens, the person with the prescription needs to go to his or her doctor immediately.

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