Vanadium is 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.
Pan-Medica, a French pharmaceutical company, has also conducted clinical trials of vanadyl in people with diabetes.
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.
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