A few months ago, a member of my gym asked, “You recommend lithium for everyone, but do you think lithium specifically affects athletic performance?”
Yes, yes I do.
Like much about biology — and everything about lithium — we don’t understand the exact mechanisms very well. But here’s why lithium affects athletic performance.
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Question: do you think lithium specifically affects athletic performance?
The incorrect assumption in the question is that athletic performance — or more precisely, muscular activity — exists in isolation from the rest of the body.
Disconnect those muscles from the blood that fuels them, the neurons that control them, the liver that provides their short-term glucose or micronutrients, the fat cells that provide their fat-soluble micronutrients (and fat!), the kidneys that filter the blood, the lungs that provide the most important energy source (oxygen), the heart that moves the blood, the skin that protects those muscles from the millions of types of external cells that would eat them alive if possible, and other organs…. and those muscles wouldn’t work at all.
Exercise: A Single Rep Without Air
Blow out all air in the lungs and hold your breath.
You’ll be able to do a few repetitions before you pass out or breathe, and more with training (Wim Hoff method, for example), but not much. Few can go over a minute, I’d doubt anyone in the world can do more than a few minutes of significant muscular work without oxygen. But let’s start there: you can do a minute of “athletic performance” without oxygen. So let’s only note the major organs involved: the muscles and the nervous system (brain and rest of CNS/PNS).
Since lithium is involved in neuronal development, it’s already highly important in physical activity. But let’s continue with this line of thinking.
Now let’s exercise for more than a superman-minute-breath-hold, and breathe during repetitions or during rests…
Now we’ve involved more than just the stored glycogen in the muscles…we’ve involved new organs: the lungs, the heart, and the whole cardiovascular system, including the kidneys to clean the blood and the bladder to store the waste. Don’t forget testosterone, which means basically the whole reproductive system (of both sexes) is involved. So those are necessary for “athletic performance,” and by extension, every micronutrient (magnesium and zinc are each involved in hundreds of enzymatic reactions all over the damn body!) that has anything to do with any of those organs is going to be involved with athletic performance!
So micronutrients are important for athletic performance!
But let’s go beyond just one simple breath and let’s do a longer workout that includes a few pauses/rests.
Exercise: An Entire Workout
These rests might be:
- long, comfortable rests between a power lifter’s squat sets,
- voluntary rests during a RFT/AMRAP/etc., or
- regular rests at intervals, like EMOM/Tabata or similar interval programming (most importantly, I’d argue, because these rests tap into the body’s rhythms).
Anyway, now our workout is over a minute or two and we’re breathing. What organs are involved now? Basically everything. Blood is flowing quickly, the body is heating up, and we’re sweating, so that’s the skin. All sorts of internal organs are changing (kidneys and reproductive system above), but now it’s even more complex. Digestion slows, so you could arguably include every cell in the whole body. Certain individual muscle cells might have “consumed” all or most of a certain micronutrient (B-12 or Li+, pick one at random, it doesn’t matter) for a certain reaction during the exercise, so those cells send a signal of some sort that they need more of that micronutrient: the liver is probably the recipient, which increases output of said stored nutrient.
That’s a bit inexact, because I’m not an exercise physiologist and it’s not worth the time to look for exact examples in metabolism, but the point is: if we’re breathing more than a few breaths, the liver is involved, and we can ignore individual micronutrients like lithium, because the entire body is involved. The liver needs to start breaking down glycogen and releasing more glucose into the bloodstream for those muscles to re-stock their own glycogen stores. This is what great burst/HIIT/etc. athletes get good at during regular rest intervals: often closing eyes and resting as completely as possible during breaks to prepare the muscles as much as possible before the next round. (Maybe it’s actually better to jump rope/walk to stimulate lymph flow: I have no idea.) But anyway, the liver is involved now, digestion is slowed, so all micronutrients that affect those organs are going to impact athletic performance.
And we didn’t even talk about the most abundant minerals stored in bone: calcium, magnesium, etc. For example, bone constantly sequesters/releases calcium as necessary to maintain the right level in the blood. Calcium? Nerve conduction. See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v477/n7366/images/477546a-f1.2.jpg if you need a refresher.
But remember that pretty graphics of biological, cellular systems are a joke: biology is a warm, disgusting mess of atoms, molecules, enzymes and more bumping into each other… often at random! There are many sorts of ions (magnesium, lithium, sodium, etc.) flowing into and out of all sorts of cells all over the place. Biology is a mess.
Any workout (longer than the time it takes to pass out if you’re holding your breath) involves the whole body. Evolution produces pretty efficient systems, and we’re no exception: it’s all connected.
Life Without Skin
You could theoretically exercise without the skin, without dying, for a number of minutes… But the pain would stop you from actually moving, so it’s only theoretical. Well, I can’t speak for others; perhaps you could push through the pain and bend down and touch the barbell or reach up and touch the bar. But me? I would be on the ground screaming in agony… all while the viruses and cells from the floor and air entered my bloodstream and began to quickly overwhelm the lymphatic system, eating me alive.
Ah: life without skin. Fun thought.
Alright, so hopefully I’ve addressed that issue: micronutrients are important for athletic performance, because everything in the body is connected to everything else.
Conclusion: Back to Micronutrients, Including Lithium
Now: lithium is involved in neuronal development. Most of the research I’m seeing (consuming all the information I can is one of my most important goals for this year) is related to neurons. This is why lithium at extreme doses is such an effective drug: it’s a nutrient involved in neurons everywhere. We are basically walking bags of neurons (a brain) along with everything necessary to run them effectively.
Moreover, there’s a key aspect of fitness that many uneducated “athletes” don’t realize: athletic performance isn’t so much about having a ton of muscle tissue as it is, more importantly, about accessing as much muscle tissue as you can, on command.
The first is simply bludgeoning through the competition by having the most muscle tissue: want to win a squat competition? If your competitor has X amount of muscle tissue and can lift weight Y, you simply build up X+1 amount of muscle in order to lift Y+1. This also works very well for bodybuilding/photo competitions. The smaller the size of the population in the competition, the more this is likely to work. Spend more time training, lift heavier weights, eat more food, build more muscle, win! It’s simple, and at smaller scales like local competitions, it often works. Moreover, since most of us never care to become professional competition athletes, it’s all most of us think about.
The second is far more useful for large region or worldwide competitions — especially those in CrossFit. Accessing/controlling more muscle tissue is entirely neuronal, right? Sure: the brain sends a signal down a particular network of neurons, and those last few neurons “innervate” the muscle tissue at the neuromuscular junction. Anecdotally, we all “know” when we’re weaker or stronger in the gym from week to week, based on how well we can access the full power of our muscles. That’s simply “accessing,” if you will, a certain “percentage” of our power. This is where all the different aspects of true athletic performance come into play: low-repetition neurological training, sleep, diet, sex, social life, stress and calm, intellectual accomplishments, and more. This is where the whole body concept for athletes, including every single micronutrient in the body, comes into play. (I pity the athletes who think they can win with processed foods and enough supplements. Some win a few competitions, but most are simply sacrificing their long-term health and longevity for short-term physical performance. Sadly, even the “healthiest” of competitors these days will need to do this to some extent, which is one reason I’ve never been interested in being a professional athlete. My main opponent is myself, thank you.)
Anyway, since lithium isn’t yet a recognized nutrient by the FDA/WHO, it won’t even be adequately tracked in foods for many years. (I’ll add a food section to the /lithium page later this year, but still recommend supplementation.) Thus, the question is, are we getting enough lithium in our diets? Like magnesium (/pills), most of us probably aren’t.
Here’s to your health — and competitions!