Lithium is found in variable amounts in foods; primary food sources are grains and vegetables; in some areas, the drinking water also provides significant amounts of the element. Human dietary lithium intakes depend on location and the type of foods consumed and vary over a wide range. Traces of lithium were detected in human organs and fetal tissues already in the late 19th century, leading to early suggestions as to possible specific functions in the organism. However, it took another century until evidence for the essentiality of lithium became available. In studies conducted from the 1970s to the 1990s, rats and goats maintained on low-lithium rations were shown to exhibit higher mortalities as well as reproductive and behavioral abnormalities. In humans defined lithium deficiency diseases have not been characterized, but low lithium intakes from water supplies were associated with increased rates of suicides, homicides and the arrest rates for drug use and other crimes. Lithium appears to play an especially important role during the early fetal development as evidenced by the high lithium contents of the embryo during the early gestational period. The biochemical mechanisms of action of lithium appear to be multifactorial and are intercorrelated with the functions of several enzymes, hormones and vitamins, as well as with growth and transforming factors. The available experimental evidence now appears to be sufficient to accept lithium as essential; a provisional RDA for a 70 kg adult of 1,000 microg/day is suggested.