Lithium has been used as a therapy for mental illness since the Greek and Roman times. Then, people absorbed it into their skin when they soaked in alkali-rich mineral springs to help ease their "melancholia" and "mania." In the mid-1800s, lithium was used to cure bodily gout and what they called ‘‘brain gout,’’ or the idea of a swollen brain. This fiery and unstable chemical funnily enough calms similarly described emotional states.
Although it's actual effect isn't fully understood, one way to think about it is by increasing the gray matter in their brains, especially in areas that affect a person's ability to maintain attention and emotional control.
But, like everything, it doesn't come without it's side effects. It can lead to increased thirst, weight gain and memory loss and, more rarely and in prolonged uses, thyroid deterioration, kidney dysfunction and dullness and lethargy.
Jaime Lowe describes her experience with bipolar disorder and her successes and complications with lithium. In the end, she has to choose whether she wants to continue taking the drug that has helped keep her manic episodes at bay, or save her kidneys. Both felt like bad choices, but her journey to get there is fascinating. Read more about her experience here.