A trace nutritional element that occurs naturally in plants and animals. It was first described as a potential medicinal agent for a variety of ills (including diabetes) in 1899. In the late 1970’s, scientists began studying vanadium compounds for their insulin-like properties.
In 1985, researchers noted that two vanadium compounds, vanadate and vanadyl, appeared to mimic the action of insulin, normalizing blood glucose levels in a number of animal models of Type 1 (insulin-dependent) and Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes. Like insulin, vanadyl and vanadate increase the transport of glucose into fat and muscle cells, increase glucose metabolism, speed up the conversion of glucose into glycogen (the storage form of glucose), and slow down the breakdown of fat. Exactly how these compounds mimic the action of insulin is not yet known.
The effects of vanadium were studied in 10 diabetes patients at Boston’s Joslin Diabetes Center. Data from the study showed modest increase in insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin requirements in most of the patients. Further, the Joslin researchers didn’t note any toxicity to vanadium, which had been seen at high doses in the animal studies.
The Joslin researchers are continuing their studies of vanadium compounds, and three major trials are being conducted with funding from the National Institutes of Health. Pan-Medica, a French pharmaceutical company, is also conducting clinical trials of vanadyl in people with diabetes.
Meanwhile, some investigators have moved on to more potent forms of vanadium, called peroxyvanadium complexes. Developed by researchers at McGill University in Montreal, they may be safer to take because the amount needed to show medicinal benefit is further below the levels likely to be toxic. Peroxyvanadium complexes have already been shown to greatly enhance insulin action in animals.
Even though vanadium compounds are available in dietary supplements, researchers caution against taking these compounds except in clinical studies: They have not been used extensively in humans, so all of their potential side effects may not yet be known. Because so little is known about vanadium, a safe level of intake has not been established.