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Bipolar Disorder Health Center

Lithium for Bipolar Disorder

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Lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid) is one of the most widely used and studied medications for treating bipolar disorder. Lithium helps reduce the severity and frequency of mania. It may also help relieve or prevent bipolar depression.

Studies show that lithium can significantly reduce suicide risk. Lithium also helps prevent future manic and depressive episodes. As a result, it may be prescribed for long periods of time (even between episodes) as maintenance therapy.

Lithium acts on a person's central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Doctors don't know exactly how lithium works to stabilize a person's mood, but it is thought to help strengthen nerve cell connections in brain regions that are involved in regulating mood, thinking and behavior.  

It usually takes several weeks for lithium to begin working. Your doctor will want to take regular blood tests during your treatment because lithium can affect kidney or thyroid function. Lithium works best if the amount of the drug in your body is kept at a constant level. It is important that the lithium level in your body not be too low or too high. Your doctor will also probably suggest you drink eight to12 glasses of water or fluid a day during treatment and use a normal amount of salt in your food. Both salt and fluid can affect the levels of lithium in your blood, so it's important to consume a steady amount every day.

The dose of lithium varies among individuals and as phases of their illness change. Although bipolar disorder is often treated with more than one drug, some people can control their condition with lithium alone.

Lithium Side Effects

About 75% of people who take lithium for bipolar disorder have some side effects, although they may be minor. They may become less troublesome after a few weeks as your body adjusts to the drug. Sometimes, side effects of lithium can be relieved by tweaking the dose. However, never change your dose or drug schedule on your own. Do not change the brand of lithium without checking with your doctor or pharmacist first. If you are having any problems, talk to your doctor about your options.

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