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Lemon, Lime—and Lithium? Turns Out, 7-Up Used to Contain the Potent Drug

Like Coke, the popular soda has a psychotropic past.
Sep 16, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

No doubt you’ve long known what originally put the “Coca” in Coca-Cola. But here’s a fun bit of happy-hour trivia you might not be familiar with: What put the “Up” in the original 7-Up?

Lithium!

That’s right: It turns out that what today is perhaps the most boring and staid of all the major soft drinks (except when it’s liberally spiked) has a semi-scandalous past.

That cocaine gave Coke its original happy kick isn’t news—unless, of course, you’re in third grade, which is about when it seems most of us became aware of Coke’s psychotropic history, owing to the breathless revelations of that kid. You know, the one who always seemed in possession of some dubious bit of grown-up-sounding knowledge. But I myself have to admit that I’d never before heard of 7-Up’s once-upon-a-time not-so-secret ingredient. That tidbit isn’t even the most startling revelation in psychiatrist Anna Fels’ provocatively titled op-ed that appeared last weekend in The New York Times: “Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?”

Fels charts what she characterizes as a small yet growing body of scientific evidence that suggests tiny doses of lithium, consumed regularly, contribute to better overall mental health, likely because lithium seems to act to protect neurons in the brain. In some areas of the country, you’re probably already on a regular regimen: Lithium is a naturally occurring element that’s found in varying minute concentrations in tap water.

The evidence Fels presents is fairly startling (which is no doubt why her article has been sitting near the top of the Times’ most-emailed list for the past several days). To wit: “In 1990, a study was published looking at 27 Texas counties with a variety of lithium levels in their water,” she writes. “The authors discovered that people whose water had the least amount of lithium had significantly greater levels of suicide, homicide and rape than the people whose water had the higher levels of lithium. The group whose water had the highest lithium level had nearly 40 percent fewer suicides than that with the lowest lithium level.”

There are studies, too, that suggest lithium can prevent dementia, which is a growing public health concern as the American population, on average, becomes older.

But Fels, who is on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, fully recognizes that convincing the public to add lithium to its routine of daily dietary supplements is a tough sell, owing to the drug’s association with, say, mental health treatment, circa One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She reports that even patients with major mood disorders who would likely benefit from lithium treatment often reject the drug.

’Twas not always so. In the century before Kurt Cobain’s moody ode to the soporific effect of medical-grade lithium, people flocked to natural springs where the element was abundant, Fels reports. It was on the basis of lithium’s salubrious reputation that it was added to Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda—or what would become 7-Up. The fizzy beverage would contain lithium citrate until 1950.

Which might not be so surprising at the end of the day. After all, the history of most major soft drinks today is intertwined with that of the nascent pharmaceutical industry; Coke, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper were all invented by pharmacists. It’s not for nothing that most corner drugstores had a soda fountain.

Today, of course, we’re becoming ever more aware of just how unhealthy a regular soda habit can be, with increased soda consumption linked to higher rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes. It’s ironic—in light of the historic claims made by soda makers that their products enhanced mood—that last year, researchers at the National Institutes of Health found a correlation between higher rates of soda consumption and depression, at least in older adults.

Which makes Fels’ proposal seem as misguided as her revelations about low-dose lithium consumption are enlightening: “Who knows what the impact on our society would be if micro-dose lithium were again part of our standard nutritional fare?” she muses. “What if it were added back to soft drinks or popular vitamin brands or even put into the water supply? The research to date strongly suggests that suicide levels would be reduced, and even perhaps other violent acts. And maybe the dementia rate would decline. We don’t know because the research hasn’t been done.”

Creepy 1984 overtones aside, adding lithium back into soda would seem to be hardly what a country battling an unprecedented obesity epidemic needs: an excuse to drink more high-calorie sugar water because, you know, it’s good for you.