Element 3: Better for Batteries or Brains…or Beverages???
Think back to chemistry class, when you studied the periodic table of the elements. You may remember it as being just a confusing jumble of letters and numbers. But our daily lives would be very different without element number 3. It’s a key component in the batteries that power our smartphones, laptops, and even fancy-schmancy Teslas. But that same element also happens to be one of the most effective treatments ever discovered for bipolar disorder and mania, as well as other mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. It is especially effective for treating suicidal ideation. Through the years it’s also been used to treat anemia, headaches, alcoholism, epilepsy, and diabetes. But it’s very scary, because it has some serious and potentially lethal short and long term side effects, and there is a very narrow window between the dose where it’s effective and the dose where it’s deadly. It’s so scary that I literally have only one patient out of my entire practice on it. The element I’m talking about is lithium. Let’s consider the good, the bad, and the ugly of lithium.
The good: it’s effective as all get out. I would call it one of the most effective drugs in the treatment of mania. It treats the high of the manic episode, the irritability, the agitation, disorganization, hallucinations, delusions, rapid speech, insomnia, racing thoughts, grandiosity, and impulsivity of mania. It prevents the mood cycling of bipolar, and it also treats the suicidality associated with mania and depression.
The bad: it has a nasty side effect profile. It causes a host of issues. Sedation is a big one. It makes people tired and causes obvious mental slowing. I say obvious because it becomes obvious to everyone. The person appears dull and medicated. It slows the mind down. Thoughts don’t process at normal speed, and speech and reactions are slow. It also affects kidney function, causing frequent urination, as well as nausea and diarrhea. It also can be very disabling because lithium commonly causes fine tremor. When all of the side effects are looked at together, they can easily be mistaken for alcoholism or drug abuse, so it can affect people’s opinions at work and have other huge social and personal consequences. It can cause a great deal of weight gain, as well as disfiguring acne on the face and back, as well as psoriasis, red scaly patches of skin on the body. On top of all of that, it can also affect the heart, potentially causing sick sinus syndrome, which is an arrhythmia where the heart’s natrual pacemeker, the sinus node, doesn’t work properly.
As for the ugly; let’s just say that lithium wouldn’t be winning any molecular beauty pageants… it is uuuu-uuu-gly! Lithium can cause nephrogenic diabetes insipidus and interstitial nephritis. Those are big words that simply mean it shuts the kidneys down. Like dunzo down. Patients on long term lithium therapy regularly have chronic renal failure. One of my patients that used to be on lithium is currently on a kidney transplant list. Another ugly component of lithium is that it shuts down the thyroid. You kind of need your thyroid to maintain metabolic processes in your body. It’s pretty important…without it, you become ill with all sorts of terrible issues and you must take another drug to kick it back into gear.
There are other issues with taking lithium. There are some commonly used medications that don’t play well with it. You cannot take diuretics, and you can’t take NSAIDs ibuprofen or naproxen for pain, because these can cause dangerously high levels. Lithium is unusual in that it has that small window of operation I mentioned. You have to have levels checked to make sure they’re between 0.6 and 1.2 mEq/L. If you get toxic by taking thiazide diuretics or NSAIDs or by getting dehydrated, lithium can cause permanent brain damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and death. So, it is extremely problematic in that it has that narrow window between efficacy and death. In addition, certain drugs lower lithium levels. A big one is caffeine; people have to be very careful with caffeine intake. Even drinking too much water can lower lithium levels, because you can literally dilute it in your system.
All things considered, I say lithium is a last line drug. Yes, it works, but it’s like using a sledgehammer to nail a one penny nail into the wall…there’s going to be collateral damage to the structure of the wall. As good as the good is, the bad is too bad and the ugly too ugly. There are so many other drugs now to try first. Lamotrigine, oxcarbazepine, valproic acid, lurasidone, aripiprazole, and quetiapine to name some. Some psychiatrists would argue with me because these other choices may not be as effective, but they won’t cause the mental slowing, acne, tremor, frquent urination, kidney failure, and hypothyroidism. I treat a patient as a whole, I don’t treat just the mental illness. If my treatment of the mental illness damages or destroys other parts of a patient’s life, is that proper treatment? I say no, but some physicians say yes. It’s a philosophical issue, a quality of life issue, that won’t be solved until somebody develops a drug that works as well but without the terrible side effects. As I mentioned above, I have only one patient in my entire practice on lithium, and I’m currently trying to get him off of it. Why? Well, he’s experiencing sedation, cognitive slowing, frequent urination, tremor, nausea, acne, and weight gain; surprise, surprise…it is making his life miserable. So we’ll continue to try other drugs and hopefully find some success elsewhere.
We’ve talked about the use of lithium in batteries and in brains, but in beverages? Believe it or not, it’s true.
Lithium was once a key ingredient in 7 Up soda. This is a 7 Up ad in a 1948 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal magazine. Look how happy everybody is, and notice all the open bottles of liquid lithium everywhere. The father is like “These crazy kids, drinking all this 7 Up. They’re going to drive me to the poor house!” And the son is like “It’s okay, dad! Have another sip of your 7 Up!” And the daughter is like “Wheeee! I LOVE 7 Up!” And the mom is like “I hope I have enough 7 Up to keep me from murdering my entire family.” And the tagline just kills me… “You like it- it likes you!”
7 Up debuted in 1929, and before 7 Up became it’s name, it was called “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda,” (really catchy name) and its original ingredients included a “healthy dose” of lithium citrate. Apparently there were more than 500 lemon-lime soft drinks on the market at the time, which is yet another fact that blows my mind. Anyway, to make their product stand out, Cadbury Beverages North America touted in their ads the “positive health effects” of the lithium in the soda, which interestingly was released just a few months before the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression….things that make you go hmmm….Apparently the recipe had some appeal, because in the 1940s, 7 Up was the third best-selling soft drink in the world. But alas, somebody got wise, and lithium was removed from the recipe in 1950. Just a little fun fact: there is a precedent for the addition of “pharmacologically active” ingredients in soft drinks. Coca Cola added a lot of coca leaves (from which cocaine is derived) to it’s original 1886 formulation, giving it it’s name. Another fun fact: the guy that formulated it was an alcoholic and opium addict who was looking for a cure for his affliction. Evidently it contained a great deal of the cocaine molecule, a fact that undoubtedly led to it’s popularity in those olden days. I’m sure lots of folks were bummed out when it was removed from the formulation in 1903. Didn’t matter to the formulator/owner, because he’d been found dead long before on his office floor with an opium stick in his hand.
For more interesting stories on psychiatric conditions and the medications that treat them, check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available in my office or on Amazon.Learn More
As a psychiatrist practicing in Palm Beach Florida, I come across a lot of bipolar patients. What are the warning signs of bipolar disorder? How can you recognize if someone you love or even yourself has bipolar disorder? You can’t get through an hour television program without at least 2 commercials for bipolar medications, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about it.
First, what is bipolar? Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder more commonly found in women that can cause dramatic changes in mood and energy levels. The term bipolar refers to the two poles of the disorder, the extremes of mood. Those two extremes of mood are mania and depression. The symptoms of bipolar can affect a person’s daily life severely as their mood can range from feelings of elation and high energy to depression. There are two types of bipolar, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is more serious and disruptive than type 2, which can also be called hypomania.
Bipolar is sort of the Jekyl and Hyde of psychiatric disorders, with cycling of mania and depression. Manic episodes and depressive episodes have very specific signs and symptoms associated with them.
When someone is manic, they do not just feel very happy. They feel euphoric. Key features of mania include, but are not limited to:
– having a lot of energy
– feeling able to achieve anything
– having difficulty sleeping
– using rapid speech that jumps between topics.
– inability to follow through with ideas or tasks
– feeling agitated, jumpy, or wired
– engaging in risky behaviors, such as reckless sex, spending a lot of money, dangerous driving, or unwise consumption of alcohol and other substances
– believing that they are more important than others or have important connections
– exhibiting anger, aggression, or violence if others challenge their views or behavior
– in severe cases, mania can involve psychosis, with hallucinations that can cause them to see, hear, or feel things that are not there.
People in a manic state may also have delusions and distorted thinking that cause them to believe that certain things are true when they are not. While I have many patients that get delusions of grandeur, I have one patient that comes to mind. Her name is Felicia. Felicia is a 32-year-old receptionist. She was diagnosed with bipolar type 1 when she was 25, which happens to be the typical age of diagnosis. Felicia is on two medications for her bipolar with mixed results. She still cycles occasionally to a manic state. Sometimes that’s a clue that she may not be compliant with her meds. Like many bipolar people, Felicia loves loves loves her manic state. When Felicia is manic, she is on top of the world. Her house is pristinely clean, the meals she makes for her family are total gourmet, and her appearance is perfect. Sounds great, right? You may be thinking ‘Where’s the downside, Dr. A?’ Well, in this manic state, Felicia absolutely positively believes that she is descended from “the true” royalty. She believes that the father of the current Queen of England, the previous King George VI, actually stole the monarchy and the crown from her father. As a result, she believes that she should be the rightful current monarch. In reality, her father is a semi-retired urban planner living just outside of Topeka Kansas. Regardless, when Felicia is super manic, she will relay this story with a voice full of indignation and a perfectly straight face. She will tell anyone this story, so people think she’s totally nuts.
A person in a manic state may not realize that their behavior is unusual, but others may notice a change in behavior. Some people may see the person’s outlook as eccentric or sociable and fun-loving, while others may find it unusual or bizarre. The individual may not realize that they are acting inappropriately or be aware of the potential consequences of their behavior. In some cases, they may need help in staying safe when they are completely out of touch with reality. Bipolar type 1 patients can be some of the most dangerous patients in my practice, as they can be violent, prone to rage and acting out on that rage. They are chaotic. If you have an untreated or ineffectively treated bipolar 1 person in the household, you will know. One big problem is that patients enjoy the manic state of their disorder. They feel such increased energy and euphoria that they are prone to stop taking their meds. Once that happens, all hell breaks loose.
But eventually, that mania will cycle into deep depression with all of the symptoms that go with it, and may end with suicidal thoughts or acts. Key features of depressive episodes may include, but are not limited to:
– feeling down or sad
– having very little energy
– having trouble sleeping or sleeping a lot more than usual
– thinking of death or suicide
– forgetting things
– feeling tired
– losing enjoyment in daily activities
– having a flatness of emotion that may show in the person’s facial expression
– In very severe cases, a person may experience psychosis or a catatonic depression, in which they are unable to move, talk, or take any action.
Bipolar type 2, also called hypomania, is a disorder which is sort of like type 1-light. It features episodes of depression and hypomania. Symptoms of hypomania are similar to those of mania, but the behaviors are less extreme, and people can often function well in their daily life. But if a person does not address the signs of hypomania, it can progress into the more severe form of the condition at a later time. I see type 2 patients more often in my practice, and I see them as generally being much calmer than type 1 patients. They do not get as violent, do not hear voices, do not have hallucinations, and are not disorganized in their speech or behavior. However, they are usually irritable. They talk quickly. They have trouble sleeping. They have trouble concentrating. They have trouble getting things done. They have relationship issues. They have trouble sleeping. These periods of hypomania can last anywhere between minutes to days to weeks.
So what can be done for a patient suffering from bipolar disorder, whether type 1 or 2? There are multiple drugs which can be used to balance the patient. I find my go-to drug would be lamotrigine, as it is minimal in its side effect profile, is mood stabilizing, does not put on weight, does not make you drowsy, and does not have many drug interactions. There are other drugs which can be used, oxcarbazepine and divalproex, which are antiseizure mood stabilizers. These have some effectiveness and have various side effect profiles. In some cases, antipsychotic drugs like lurasidone are useful. Many times I put patients on at least two drugs, one to treat mania and one to treat depression. I can prescribe all the drugs in the world, but they won’t do any good if patients are non-compliant in taking them. So the biggest and most important key feature in treating bipolar is having a relationship with the patient and making sure they are compliant with medicine, because the manic state is so enjoyable to them that they may choose non-compliance. That’s really the biggest barrier to treatment. I always explain to my manic patients that while they may like the mania, they will have to pay the piper, because guess what? Next they’ll be hopelessly depressed and unable to get out of bed.
In my practice, I see many female patients with mood disorders. The way I approach treatment is to find the best tolerated drug. This may not be the best drug on the market, but may be the best drug for that patient because it is better tolerated and has a better side effect profile for that patient. If the drugs cause weight gain, make them drowsy, or cause sexual dysfunction, they won’t take them. And who would blame them? So I work very hard to explore all available pharmaceutical treatment options for each patient as an individual. The goal is to have a drug regimen which is the least invasive in that person’s life and to combine that with psychotherapy. Because bipolar disorder is a lifelong disease, treatment should also be lifelong. If you suspect that you have bipolar or a loved one has bipolar, contact a physician for referral to a mental health professional like myself. For more information, check out my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon.com.Learn More
The treatment depends on what state the individual is in and how severe. Manic patients have a wide range of symptoms. The severely agitated and psychiatric manic patient needs hospitalization and treatment with antipsychotics, like Risperdal, Seroquel, Geodon, and Zyprexa. The less severe forms of mania respond to Depakote, Lamictal, Trileptal, Lithium, Abilify, Topamax and Zonegran. The key here is to put someone on a medication which they can live with. Most Bipolar patients require a lifetime of treatment.
What happens if they are depressed with a known history of mania? You have to pre-treat with a mood stabilizer which I mentioned above and then use an anti-depressant. Anti-depressant medications I like to use are Wellbutrin, Lexapro, Zoloft and Prozac.
(Note, some mood stabilizers like Abilify, Lamictal, Seroquel, and Zyprexa may be enough to treat both depression and mania.) (more…)Learn More