By John Walsh, PA, CDE
Author of Pumping Insulin and Using Insulin
"I've read several web sites that claim that Vanadyl Sulfate (Vanadium) has a significant effect on lowering blood glucose levels. One web site claims that Vanadyl Sulfate actually mimics insulin and that after five months some people have been cured completely of their diabetes. Is there any support to these claims in the medical arena that you know of? This sounds too good to be true!"
Richard Watkins, via the Internet
"Too good to be true" is a great way to summarize today's claims about vanadium. Since 1980 when research first showed this trace mineral could lower blood sugars, tantalizing results have been found in studies of rodents and in a limited number of human studies. Unfortunately, no one has been "cured" while very serious concerns have been raised about the potential damage this mineral might create.
Vanadium, along with its heavier cousins, molybdenum and tungsten, can mimic insulin. In other words, in research done with cells, these minerals have literally been able to replace insulin. But read further before coming to any quick decisions on this trace mineral.
The positive effects of vanadium at first appeared promising. Vanadium can improve sensitivity to insulin in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. It has been shown in human studies to have some ability to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Areas of the world where vanadium (and selenium) levels are high in the soil have lower rates of heart disease. After oral intake, effects of the mineral are seen weeks to months later due to its accumulation in tissues like the kidneys and bone.
Vanadium has been shown to lower growth of human prostate cancer cells in tissue cultures, and to reduce bone cancer and liver cancer in animals. These widespread effects on cancer and diabetes, along with the protective effect seen with another trace mineral, selenium, on certain cancers, suggest that trace minerals are likely to come under more scrutiny for potential health benefits and toxicity.
Unfortunately, vanadium's effects are not all positive. Vanadium works by blocking dozens of enzymes, including ribonucleases, mutases, kinases, and synthases. This indiscriminate blocking action has the potential to be both positive and negative.
Dr. Alavattam Sreedhara originally at Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India, and now at Ohio State University has been doing research on vanadium1,2,3 for several years. He and fellow researchers have discovered several disturbing effects form vanadium, including damage to DNA, blocking of protein synthesis, as well as oxidation of lipids, which is considered a primary step in the development of cardiovascular disease.
These disturbing effects are seen at normal physiologic levels (5-10 micromolar), similar to those that would be expected to occur with supplements available at health food stores. Potentially, these changes could lead to cancer and an increased risk of heart disease over time. Vanadium compounds place increased oxidative stress on cells, partly due to an unhealthy interaction with reactive iron.4 It is too early to tell if these experiments with cells and animals will translate into similar dangers in humans.
But other researchers have discovered even more immediate danger to people with diabetes. Vanadyl compounds, again similar to those found in health food stores, have been found to kill beta cells! Several mechanisms could possibly account for this damage, but increased oxidative damage to which beta cells are especially vulnerable, may be the most important. Again, it is not known how relevant this danger may be to humans.
In animal research, a very narrow line has been found between the benefits and toxicity of this trace mineral. Reports at some labs show death rates as high as 50% at doses required to lower blood sugars. Vanadium has been shown to cause death in both pregnant rats (45%) and fetuses. In addition, different labs have produced different outcomes related to the blood sugars, with some labs finding little blood sugar lowering effect.
A group of researchers in Spain, who were attempting to control blood sugars in diabetic rats with three different vanadium compounds, put it this way, "Although some signs of diabetes were improved by vanadium treatment, because of the severe toxic side effects (including death and a rise in creatinine levels) noted in all of the vanadium-treated animals, it seems evident that oral vanadium administration is not a suitable therapy of diabetes mellitus…"5
Obvious toxic effects from vanadium coumpounds are usually seen in lab animals at minimum doses of 2.5 to 7.5 mg/kg/day. Although this is higher than typical over-the-counter doses of 30 mg to 60 mg per day, the difference between this dose and toxic doses for animals is not reassuring. For instance, someone who weighs 60 kg. (132 lbs.) and takes 60 mg. a day, their intake would be 1.0 mg/kg/day, or 40% of a dose believed to have shortterm toxic effects in animals. It should also be noted that inhibition of protein synthesis can be seen at much lower doses than those required to produce a toxic effect.
Some researchers speculate that excess vanadium could also be involved in several diseases of the kidney and bone where it is known to accumulate. Some success in treating manic-depressive disease has actually come from diets designed to be low in vanadium.
In studies with humans using low doses for short periods of time, the only recognized side effect has been some minor stomach upset. But no long-term studies have been done in humans to determine whether possible toxic effects to vulnerable organs like the kidney may occur. A variety of antioxidants have successfully been used in animals to reduce but not eliminate vanadium's toxicity.
A new derivative under study at McGill University, called "peroxovanadium," appears to be at least 50 times as powerful as the more common vanadium salts. Early reports indicate this derivative might normalize blood sugars without as much toxicity. But long-term administration has not been tested, even in animals, and given the toxicity of a wide range of vanadium coumpounds, side effects would be likely.
Under normal conditions, the body contains 20 to 25 mg. of vanadium, and the average diet supplies about 2 mg. of vanadium per day. Food sources rich in vanadium include pepper, dill, radishes, eggs, vegetable oils, buckwheat and oats. Because of their organic environment, these natural sources are likely to be safer than over the counter preparations.
Vanadium or one of its derivatives may someday help improve blood sugar control in diabetes. But too many unknowns surround this mineral today. No one knows how to determine if a person is deficient, or how to determine an optimum dose, if there is such a thing. Although vanadium com pounds are available at health food stores, use of this trace mineral is definitely not recommended until more is known about its risks. Vanadium obviously has the potential to affect many areas in the body for better or worse.
- A. Sreedhara, N. Susa, A. Patwardhan, and C.P. Rao: Biochem & Biophys Res. Comm.; 224, 115-120; 1996
- A. Sreedhara, N. Susa, and C.P. Rao: Inorg. Chimica Acta; 263, 189-194; 1997
- T. Krishnamoorthy, A. Sreedhara, N. Susa, C.P. Rao, and K.V.A. Ramaiah: Arch. of Biochem. & Biophys.; 349, 122-128; 1998
- H.P. Monteiro, C.C. Winterbourne, and A. Stern: Free Radic. Res. Commun.; 12-13 (Pt 1), 125-129; 1991.
- J.L. Domingo, et. al.: Toxicology; 66(3): 279-287, 1991.