DOES IT WORK: VANADIUM is an element named after Vanadis, the Scandinavian goddess of beauty, youth and lustre. Vanadium is not said to bring all these blessings, but it has developed a reputation as a food supplement to prevent and treat type 2 diabetes. This is the most common form of diabetes, now estimated to affect about 250 million people worldwide.
In the pursuit of inexpensive nutritional strategies to address diabetes, vanadium is one of a number of “micronutrients” being investigated. These are minerals known to play some role in sugar metabolism which could be added to people’s diets in a relatively straightforward way if found to be beneficial.
Vanadium is also said to be a helpful performance-enhancing supplement for athletes, although even less research has been conducted in this area than with diabetes.
Laboratory studies have shown that vanadium acts in similar ways to insulin when added to various tissues. When some animals were given vanadium supplements, their blood sugar levels were lowered, which is a beneficial effect related to diabetes.
However, as further research has been done to understand these effects, the results suggest that some caution is necessary. Vanadium impacts several enzymes throughout the body which indicates it may have a wide range of effects, some of which may be problematic.
For example, in research with rats, some animals died at doses only twice as high as those required to show anti-diabetic effects. A much bigger difference between the beneficial and toxic doses is preferred for safe treatments.
However, there are always questions about how applicable the results of animal research are to humans.
For this reason, the results of human studies are crucial in evaluating supplements. A group of reviewers with the Cochrane Collaboration recently published a systematic review of vanadium for diabetes.
This organisation has developed a well-recognised method of summarising all the available research on over 4,000 clinical interventions. This information, including consumer summaries, is freely available in Ireland at www.thecochranelibrary.com through funding from the Health Research Board. The review of vanadium found no human studies which met their pre-established quality standards.
The Cochrane review did find five studies of vanadium for diabetes. However, none of the studies involved suitable control groups which are required to demonstrate whether a treatment is better than placebo.
The studies were small, involving between six and 16 participants, and lasted no more than six weeks. For a chronic disease like diabetes, long-term studies are essential.
Although the effectiveness of vanadium cannot be established from such research, statistically significant improvements were found during each of the studies. This suggests that further research into vanadium is warranted.
In the five studies reported in the Cochrane review, gastrointestinal problems were frequently reported by participants. These tended to decrease as the studies continued. These effects were found with the most commonly recommended dose of 50mg vanadyl sulphate two or three times daily.
At this stage, it is too early to establish whether vanadium will be a useful micronutrient for the prevention or treatment of diabetes. The research conducted so far shows that vanadium has an impact on sugar metabolism. However, the available human studies are very preliminary and cannot be used to support the clinical use of vanadium.
The results show that further research should be conducted to determine whether vanadium is effective and safe.
Given the broad range of effects found for vanadium in different tissues, controlled clinical trials are essential to ensure than it does not cause more harm than benefit.
Meanwhile, diabetes should continue to be addressed using dietary changes, physical activity and well-established treatments.
Dónal OMathúna has a PhD in pharmacy, researching herbal remedies, and an MA in bioethics, and is a senior lecturer in the School of Nursing, Dublin City University.