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How Drinking Water Might Be Preventing Suicide

pouring water from bottle into glass against sunlit green background
Singkham/Shutterstock

When the soft drink 7-Up was created in 1929, it contained lithium, the lightest naturally occurring metal on the periodic table, because it helped boost moods. While it’s no longer in the beverage, it is found naturally in drinking water, and it might be having a surprise effect.

Lithium might be most famous for smoothing out the mood swings experienced by people suffering from manic-depressive disorder. But the element can also tamp down aggression, substance abuse, and criminal behavior. Since the 1970s, it’s also been known to reduce suicidal behavior. 

While the metal can be found in a variety of foods, including mustard, eggs, meat, and cocoa, it also shows up in the drinking water supply because it is also found in nearly all rocks, through which water percolates. 

Water, Water Everywhere

Now, a study from Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London has backed up the idea that lithium lessens suicidal behaviors.

By analyzing previous studies on drinking water conducted in Austria, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States, which comprised 1,286 regions/counties/cities, the researchers were able to determine that communities with higher levels of lithium in the drinking water did, indeed, experience lower levels of suicide. In all cases, the amount of lithium being consumed was far less than the dosages that are used medicinally, however, the dosing period was considerably longer, “potentially starting at conception,” says a brief about the study. 

COVID Balm?

The researchers say their findings could be particularly relevant today.

“In these unprecedented times of COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent increase in the incidence of mental health conditions, accessing ways to improve community mental health and reduce the incidence of anxiety, depression, and suicide is ever more important,” said lead author Anjum Memon, of Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

Memnon also says that this research can be the start of understanding how low doses of lithium in drinking water supplies might benefit communities.

“Next steps might include testing this hypothesis by randomized community trials of lithium supplementation of the water supply, particularly in communities (or settings) with demonstrated high prevalence of mental health conditions, violent criminal behavior, chronic substance abuse and risk of suicide,” he said. “This may provide further evidence to support the hypothesis that lithium could be used at the community level to reduce or combat the risk of these conditions.”