Understanding the Risks of Taking Lithium

Lithium is a common medication used to treat bipolar disorders and has been shown to be extremely effective at not only reducing the risk of suicide, but also helping to control moods. However, like many of the drugs used to treat bipolar disorders, Lithium has several side effects, most notably the risk of damage to the kidneys, very similar to how diabetes can affect the body.

In the body, kidneys are used to help control nutrient levels in the blood stream, while filtering out waste and processing water. Urine is produced by the kidneys and subsequently passed out of the body, but the urine production is not the most important role of the kidneys, with its regulation of certain nutrients, as well as producing and regulating several essential hormones being much more essential to a person's health.

In those that take lithium, there is a higher risk of acute kidney failure and chronic kidney failure, which can be very serious.

During the first month or two of lithium treatment, about 3/5 of patients will experience above average urinary output, as well as increased thirst, which is caused by the way that lithium interacts with the body's ability to process urine. In most patients, this will go away after a few months, but for about a 1/4 of those who take lithium, these symptoms will persist.

This is a very serious symptom, as it is an indication that the kidneys are no longer working properly and can lead to other symptoms. For example, since there is an elevated urinary output, dehydration can occur if the patient is not drinking enough water. As a result, some of the common symptoms of dehydration, such as fatigue and headache, will often occur.

The increase in urinary output caused by taking lithium is as a result of the way the drug interferes with the production of a antidiuretic hormone that tells the body to concentrate urine.

If left untreated, the complications caused by taking lithium can lead to kidney failure and chronic kidney disease. This is caused as the ability of the kidney to function decreases, so it is no longer able to meet the requirements of the body to process waste and regulate hormone and nutrient levels in the blood stream.

Avoiding Complications Caused by Taking Lithium

Since lithium can be so effective at treating bipolar disorders, simply not taking the drug is sometimes not an option, especially in those who are suicidal. However, it is very important to regularly monitor the kidney function of patients taking lithium and address any changes in function or other symptoms that could indicate kidney failure.

Often, the first step is simply to reduce the amount of lithium taken or to only take the drug at night. In the latter case, this takes advantage of how the body naturally produces less urine in the evening than it does during the day.

There are also several medications that are similar to lithium, so it may be a good idea to talk with a doctor to find out whether another prescription drug might offer similar benefits to taking lithium, as well as setting a time table to wean the patient off of lithium safely.

Another option for those who feel that the benefits of taking lithium outweigh the risks is to take a diuretic, which helps counteract lithiums effect on the antidiuretic hormone. Diuretics usually actually increase urine output, which is not something you would want for a patient taking lithium, but there are some that can actually change how lithium interacts with the kidneys.

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs(NSAIDs,) which are often used to treat arthritis, as well as hypertension, have also been shown to help reduce urinary output in some cases. However, when taking both diuretics and NSAIDs, there is a risk that lithium levels will build up to a toxic level in the body, as it is not being properly flushed out.

Diet and Exercise can also play a role in reducing the effects of lithium on the body, but this is to a much lesser degree than the above described methods, so is usually only part of the treatment.

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