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Can Lithium Cause Insomnia? (Study Summary)

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jun 07, 2021

Lithium is a well-established treatment for bipolar disorder and other conditions like PTSD (1). It’s also sold over the counter in many countries with claims of improving mood, sleep, and much more.

We’re going to look at research that focuses on lithium and sleep quality on this page, but I’ll warn you right now that there isn’t much evidence either way that lithium improves or harms sleep significantly.

In most cases, research points to lithium altering sleep structure a bit, but not causing insomnia.

Potential Side Effects of Lithium

With a topic like this, the obvious place to look for insomnia reports is in the known side effects of lithium supplementation.

However, insomnia is not a known side effect of lithium. Instead, the most common symptoms are (2):

  • Thirst and excessive urination
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight gain
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Kidney damage

Enough pain and discomfort can of course make sleep difficult, but those situations should be obvious.

SummaryIn general, insomnia isn’t a commonly reported side effect of lithium supplementation.

Research on Lithium and Sleep Quality

There isn’t a ton of research on lithium and insomnia, but there are some studies we can look at.

The most consistently found result is that lithium increases slow wave sleep (i.e. deep sleep) while decreasing REM sleep (rapid eye movement) (3,4).

The table below shows a few interesting results from lithium supplementation in one study of 10 volunteers:

  • Slow wave sleep (SWS) increased from baseline to the lithium intervention.
  • REM sleep decreased.
  • Total sleep time didn’t change significantly.
  • WASO (wake after sleep onset) increased significantly, meaning that lithium led to more frequent awakenings.

It’s really important to note that this was a sample size of just 10 volunteers, so we can’t draw any strong conclusions.

Other studies have found that overall (5),

...neither quality nor quantity of sleep and napping was affected.

SummaryLithium has an effect on how much time people spend in each stage of sleep, but doesn’t appear to have a significant effect on any common markers of insomnia like total sleep time or time to get to sleep.

The Importance of REM and Deep Sleep

The structure of sleep changes all the time, so a change to REM and SWS isn’t likely to cause issues in the short term at least.

However, all stages of sleep are important, and there’s a reason that they last as long as they usually do.

Of all the stages, there is some evidence that both REM and SWS are the most important.

When people are sleep deprived, they spend most of their next sleep in both those stages.

Most dreams happen during the REM stage, where certain types of memory consolidation occur. If someone typically has bad dreams, it’s possible that the extra time spent in REM sleep from lithium could disrupt sleep.

That’s a niche situation, but could be one possible explanation to why some individuals have different reactions than others.

Specific Situations Where Lithium Can Improve Sleep

There is some research that clearly shows that lithium can improve sleep.

First, researchers in a study with bipolar disorder patients found (6):

BD I patients with lithium have better sleep efficiency and longer sleep duration than those without lithium.

Other research confirms this effect, but also notes that it increases daytime sleepiness (7).

Finally, insomnia is a known side effect of CBD withdrawal. While it might not be the optimal treatment option, lithium does appear to have a mild effectiveness in reducing sleep disturbance during CBD withdrawal (8).

Summary: Lithium Isn’t Linked to Insomnia

In general, there’s no published research that shows that lithium has a strong positive or negative effect on sleep.

While it does affect the time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep, it doesn’t typically affect the total amount of sleep or sleep quality.

Like most supplements, consuming too much can lead to side effects which may lead to sleep trouble, but that situation will typically be obvious.

Finally, lithium is typically used to treat conditions like bipolar disease. There is a lot of evidence showing that it is effective, and improves many areas of health including sleep quality.

References

  1. Low Dose Lithium Carbonate in the Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Brief Communication
  2. Lithium side effects and toxicity
  3. Lithium increases slow wave sleep
  4. Lithium Prevents REM Sleep Deprivation-Induced Impairments on Memory Consolidation
  5. The effect of lithium carbonate on the circadian rhythm of sleep in normal human subjects.
  6. Influence of lithium on sleep and chronotypes in remitted patients with bipolar disorder
  7. Medications and their effects on sleep
  8. The Effects of Lithium Carbonate Supplemented with Nitrazepam on Sleep Disturbance during Cannabis Abstinence

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.