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How Effective is Lithium for Bipolar?

By Laura Evans
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bipolar disorder is a condition where a person experiences extreme mood swings. This disorder can severely disrupt the quality of a person's life. One of the medications that is used to treat bipolar disorder is lithium. Using lithium for bipolar disorder is one of the most common treatments for this condition. Lithium can be an effective treatment for bipolar patients because it can reduce the risk of suicide and even out moods, though it does have some side effects.

There are several types of bipolar disorder. The most severe form, bipolar I disorder, causes severe mood swings from manic phases to deep depression phases that can have a serious impact on a patient's life. Bipolar II disorder is less severe than bipolar I as patients rarely experience the "highs" of a full manic swing. Instead, bipolar II disorder patients experience hypomania, which can still result in impulsive behaviors and high levels of energy, along with longer periods of depression. A third form of bipolar disorder, cyclothymia, is the mildest of the three forms of this disorder.

Scientists are not quite sure why using lithium for bipolar disorder works. It is known that lithium affects neurotransmitters in the brain, evening out a patient's mood swings. Lithium does not cure bipolar disorder. This drug only treats the symptoms of this condition.

It can take up to two weeks for lithium to have an impact on bipolar patients. Physicians try to keep the amount of lithium in the body at a consistent level. As fluids and salt level in the body can affect the effectiveness of lithium, doctors suggest drinking the same amount of water and consuming the same amount of salt every day. A physician may have to adjust the amount of lithium that an individual takes either up or down to address both the effectiveness of the treatment and any side effects that the individual is experiencing.

Some people with bipolar disorder have suicidal tendencies. Studies show that taking lithium for bipolar disorder reduces the risks of bipolar patients committing suicide. In addition, lithium may be able to help treat both the manic highs and the depressed lows that people with bipolar disorder experience. Lithium is also used as a maintenance drug to help keep bipolar disorder patients' moods and outlooks as "even" as possible.

About three-quarters of the people who use lithium for bipolar disorder experience side effects. These side effects can include increased levels of thirst, tremors, drowsiness and vomiting. Other side effects may be weight gain, memory loss, or diarrhea. As lithium can affect both kidney and thyroid functions, those who take lithium for bipolar disorder must have regular blood tests to ensure their kidneys and thyroids are functioning properly. This drug may also weaken children's bones or cause birth defects.

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