Vanadyl Sulfate:
Could it be a wonder drug for the future?
Todd Peterson


Introduction
The Insulin Theory
What is Vanadyl Sulfate?
Selling the Product
Too Good to be True
Vanadyl Sulfate's Impact on Diabetes
A Possible Cure
Conclusion
References

Introduction

    In the competitive world of sports, athletes are always trying to get an edge.  When practice is not
enough, many athletes try to change their diets to gain an advantage over the competition.  To make more
educated decisions about what they eat, many athletes look closely at what happens to food once it enters
their bodies.  From studying the gastrointestinal and endocrine systems, athletes and researchers have
learned to appreciate the role of insulin in athletic performance.  In order to enhance performance,
researchers have developed a product called vanadyl sulfate, which supposedly mimics the effects of insulin.  While its effectiveness as a workout supplement is still in question, vanadyl sulfate also has promise as a possible alternative treatment for diabetes.
 


The Insulin Theory

    To properly comprehend the importance of insulin and the rational behind wanting to increase it artificially, one must first understand the process of sugar metabolism.  Sugar metabolism is the process by which the body converts food into energy that can be used by muscle cells. (http://encarta.msn.com/find/default.asp)  The process begins when enzymes break down food into glucose, a simple six carbon sugar that can be easily absorbed in the intestine.  From there, the hormone insulin plays several important roles.
    It is obvious that the cells that make up a person need energy to survive and function.  Insulin is crucial in the delivery of energy to cells.  In the body, glucose is the standard form of energy after digestion.  Unfortunately, glucose's size and structure make it hard for the molecule to pass through the outer membranes of many of the body's cells.  Insulin helps to fix this problem.  Specifically, insulin bonds with the outer membrane of cells to increase permeability.  This enables glucose to pass through the cell membrane more easily and gives the cell access to more energy.  Without insulin, it is extremely difficult for glucose in the blood to be used by the body's cells as energy.  Conversely, an abundance of insulin increases the rate at which glucose is used by the cells and therefore lowers the amount of glucose left in the bloodstream (Guyton, Hall, 972).
    In addition to helping to provide the cell with energy, insulin can also help the cell in other ways.  When insulin increases the permeability of the cell membrane, amino acids also enter the cell.  These amino acids can be used to build and repair cell parts, and specifically are helpful in enhancing muscle cell growth (Guyton, Hall 973).  This process occurs constantly, but is most prevalent after a large meal, when there is an abundance of glucose in the bloodstream.
    Concentrating on only these two functions of insulin, it appears to be a valuable substance whose purpose is to provide the body's cells with energy (glucose), and the building blocks for growth (amino acids).  To the body builder, such a substance would be crucial.  Because it appears that a little insulin helps to provide the body's cells (specifically muscle cells) with the things that it needs, one might theorize that more would be that much better.  For the imaginative body builder, more insulin in the body would provide him with more energy for a workout and give him greater strength gains.  This assumes that the body does not already supply itself with enough insulin for energy and muscle growth, and that an increased level in the bloodstream would somehow be more desirable.
    To obtain an increased level of insulin in the body, weightlifters have tried a variety of methods and supplements.  Some of these include synthetic forms of insulin.  Of these, the most popular has been vanadyl sulfate.

What is Vanadyl Sulfate?

      Vanadyl Sulfate is the most popular and common  form of vanadium, an element in the body that is found in foods such as pepper, dill, radishes, eggs, vegetable oils, buckwheat, and oats.  (http://diabetesnet.com/vanad.html)
Debate has raged over whether or not it is an essential nutrient in certain plants and animals, but little is certain (Harland, Harden-Williams 1994).  The physiological role of vanadium in humans is unknown, but it seems that the substance is needed for normal growth and development (Boden et al. 1996).  Recently, a great deal of attention has been paid to vanadium because of its supposed insulin-mimicking activities.  The precise mechanism by which vanadium mimics the effects of insulin is uncertain, but some researchers have made proposals.  The most popular view has been that vanadium works as a cofactor.  Specifically, it is thought to work by altering the concentration and effectiveness of several enzymes that are involved in the breakdown and distribution of glucose molecules and amino acids. http://extension.missouri.edu/hesnutrnews/fnr95-4.htm
    The lack of research into the specific methodology and structure of vanadium has left much up to speculation.  Workout supplement suppliers have taken advantage of this condition by making bold claims and wild assertions regarding just how and why vanadyl sulfate "works."
 


Selling the Product

    The Internet is full of wild claims about vanadyl sulfate. For example, Life Force Supplements states that “By taking American Muscle V3 (vanadyl sulfate), you'll get harder, increase your lean body mass, decrease your body fat, increase your endurance, and experience long term muscle growth” (http://www.lifeforcesupplements.com/vanadyl.htm).  Other sites rely on sensational and vague assertions, such as calling vanadyl sulfate a “fuel injection for the body” (http://www.mnsi.net/~jpumfrey/page3-2.html).
    While such sensationalistic claims are somewhat entertaining, they tell us little about the product.  More responsible sites at least attempt to give a reason for accepting their claims.  Specifically, they focus on the relationship between vanadyl sulfate and insulin.  Such sites then mention the theoretical benefits that one would receive if insulin were able to do its job better or more efficiently.  The logic behind buying vanadyl sulfate appears to be that an artificial insulin supplement would somehow improve the mechanisms controlled by insulin.  Basically, the rationale states that the body does not have enough insulin to do its job without outside help.
    With the "outside help" of vanadyl sulfate suppliers try to convince innocent consumers that vanadyl sulfate triggers glucose transports, which starts a domino effect that ultimately leads to bigger muscles and greater strength gains.  With glucose being triggered by this “insulin effect,” they say that the body will experience a greater amount of glucose transport to the muscle tissue, an increase in glycogen storage, and a greater assimilation of protein by muscle tissue. (http://www.greaterpower.com/Vanadyl.htm)
    To the uneducated consumer, vanadyl sulfate sounds like a miracle product.  Such a supplement would
make workouts easier and increase muscle development.  In short, the manufacturers portray vanadyl sulfate as the perfect shortcut to a body builder's physique.


Too Good To Be True

    Unfortunately, in body building, there are no shortcuts.  Vanadyl sulfate just doesn't live up to its claims.  There are several reasons, and some may be surprising.  First of all, it appears that increased insulin (in whatever form), just isn't necessary during exercise.  The theoretical benefits of increased amounts of insulin were extrapolated from the role of insulin after a large meal.  Obviously, a work out supplement should be taken by someone who is exercising, not eating.
    During exercise, the role of insulin in the body is diminished.  Insulin is no longer the primary regulator of glucose uptake.  According to Waserman and Halseth, "the two primary determinants are exercise duration and intensity" (Richter et al. 2).  Because such a condition is so radically different from resting glucose uptake, it deserves an explanation.  First of all, when an exercising muscle contracts, its cell membrane is apparently altered.  While the cell membrane of a resting muscle cell is difficult to penetrate, the cell membrane of an exercising muscle is not  (Richter et al. 2).  This enables glucose molecules to be consumed by the exercising muscle.  Obviously, an exercising muscle consumes more energy than a resting one.  Therefore, it would seem logical that more insulin would be needed during exercise to further open the muscle cell membrane and keep up with the demand. This is not the case.  During exercise, more glucose is made available to the muscle cell due to an increased blood flow.  The rapidly moving blood transports the glucose molecules and enables the rapidly consumed supply to be replenished as needed.  An increase in insulin is simply not necessary.  Indeed, the muscle actually becomes more sensitive to insulin.  Researchers have pointed to everything from the increased blood flow to a greater suppression of fatty acids, but the exact reason for the increased insulin sensitivity is still not known (Richter et al. 8-9).  While the mechanism may not be known, several studies have agreed that insulin sensitivity is increased during exercise (Cohen et al. 1995, Ishii et al. 1998).
    In addition to overestimating the potential benefits of increased insulin like activity through vanadyl sulfate, it also appears that proponents of the supplement also overlooked some of the potential dangers.  Specifically, they made the mistake of oversimplifying the role of insulin in the body.  Insulin does much more than enable glucose and amino acid uptake in muscle cells.  Indeed, insulin is one of the body's primary regulatory hormones.  When the body ingests an excess of carbohydrates (glucose), whatever the muscle cells are unable to use, insulin helps store by stimulating the storage of glucose as glycogen.  Glycogen is stored both directly in the muscle and in the liver.  When those areas are full, the excess glycogen is converted into fatty acids which later make their way into the adipose cells.  In addition, insulin also helps to synthesize both protein and fat molecules.  Most importantly, through its regulation of glucose in the bloodstream insulin helps keep our bodies from shutting down due to excess or lack of glucose. (Guyton, Hall, 976)
    With such a complex hormone, it is both foolish and dangerous to alter the concentration of the hormone in the body in an effort to obtain strength gains.  Unfortunately, some people learned this lesson the hard way.  When an excess of insulin is injected into the body, hypoglycemia can result.  This condition can cause serious consequences, including seizures, hypoglycemic comas, and possibly death.  According to The British Medical Journal, the problem is more common than one might think.  Last year, after injecting himself with insulin, a thirty year old body builder lost consciousness and went into convulsions.  Although the patient was revived with glucose treatment, he suffered brain damage and continues to have serious health problems (Elkin et al. 1997).
    Even if one ignores the potential dangers of insulin-mimicking supplementation, one cannot ignore the fact that it simply does not work.  In December of 1996, a research team at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Otago in New Zealand performed a study on the effects of oral vanadyl sulfate on body composition and athletic
performance.  In the twelve week, double-blind placebo controlled test, the results were astounding.
To test the strength gains of the subjects, a strength baseline was established at the beginning of the study.  In addition, subjects were measured for body fat percentage and overall lean body mass.  At the beginning of the study, the strength of all participants was assessed using the 1 and 10 repetition maximum for bench press and leg press.  Throughout the twelve week period, subjects worked out with a partner.  One subject took vanadyl sulfate (.5mg/day)  and the other took a placebo.  At the end of the double-blind study, the researchers concluded that with regard to side effects, oral vanadyl sulfate appeared to be well tolerated,..  However, they also concluded that "oral vanadyl sulfate was ineffective in changing body composition in weight -training athletes" (Fawcett et al. 1996).  Specifically, both groups gained (.07%) body fat and had almost identical strength gains.

Vanadyl Sulfate’s Impact on Diabetes

    If the results of the study are taken to be true, it appears that vanadyl sulfate has little or no place in the
workout supplement market.  However, we should not yet turn our back on vanadyl sulfate.  While vanadyl
sulfate has been most advertised as a workout supplement, it could be a much greater asset to the medical
community.  Several studies have been done to confirm vanadyl sulfate’s potential as a diabetic supplement
for insulin.  To properly understand how vanadyl sulfate can be used to treat diabetes, it is first necessary to
understand the nature of the disease.
    Diabetes is a disease that effects about 16 million people in the United States.  The primary sufferers of
diabetes appear to be adults over the age of 45 and people who are physically inactive.  The most
widespread form of diabetes is diabetes mellitus, a disease in which the body has a hard time producing
and/or recognizing insulin, a necessary hormone in sugar metabolism.  With inadequate amounts of insulin to
help absorb glucose, sugar accumulates in the blood.   Complications from diabetes can result in blurred
vision, weight loss, irritability, and death (http://encarta.msn.com/find/default.asp).  To help regulate glucose levels, diabetes is typically treated with insulin.  The level of treatment necessary is a key difference between the two types of diabetes.
    The two types of diabetes mellitus are insulin dependent and non insulin dependent, or Type I and Type II,
respectively.  Type I diabetics are unable to produce enough insulin, and therefore must receive some form
of daily supplementation.  Because standard insulin is broken down by the gastrointestinal system when
taken orally, Type I diabetics typically receive daily injections.  Type I diabetics often view the daily
injections as an annoyance, so there is a great demand for an insulin supplement that could be taken orally.
Unlike Type I diabetics, Type II diabetics do not have as great of a problem creating the insulin that their
body needs.  Unfortunately, their bodies sometimes have a hard time recognizing insulin and consequently
they too can have problems with excess glucose in the bloodstream. Considered the most treatable form of
diabetes, most patients control their glucose levels with the careful monitoring of their diet and exercise.  In
addition, several sufferers of Type II diabetes take forms of oral insulin, and some even take shots  to help  regulate glucose levels in their blood.  Because current forms of oral synthetic insulin appear to have side effects, the scientific community is eager to find another form of synthetic oral insulin that could be acceptable for both Type I and Type II
diabetics (Author, 978).

A Possible Cure?

     Understandably, when vanadyl sulfate was first introduced, created quite a stir in the scientific
community.  Wanting to capitalize on the demand for a side effect free oral insulin supplement, researchers
were quick to formulate studies to test the effects of vanadyl sulfate on blood glucose levels of diabetics.
In one study, researchers tested the effects of vanadyl sulfate on glucose levels of Type II diabetics.  Over
the course of four weeks, 4 men and 4 women were given 50 mg of vanadyl sulfate twice daily.  The study
yielded mixed results.  At the end of the four week period, the subjects tested on average had a 20% lower
fasting glucose concentration ( from 9.3 + 1.8 to 7.4 + 1.4). (Boden et al. 1996)
Although the lower glucose level was promising, the subjects did report some side effects.  For example,
75% of the subjects reported upset stomachs during the first week of supplementation.  This result has
raised questions about vanadyl sulfate’s toxicity.  With these mixed results, more testing was necessary.
Eager to find an answer, several research teams have explored the issue of vanadyl sulfate’s toxicity.  In one
study, 12 subjects were given 13.5 mg of vanadyl sulfate daily for two weeks and then 22.5 mg daily for
five months.  The results were discouraging.  Over 40% of the subjects developed gastrointestinal
disturbances.  This points to the fact that vanadyl sulfate is difficult for the body to handle over periods of
time.  In addition, over 40% of the subjects also developed a green tongue!  Not only unsightly, this odd
occurrence also showed that vanadium was building up in the body and appears to have the potential to
poison humans in more serious ways. (http://extension.missouri.edu/hesnutrnews/fnr95-4.htm).  These
findings are especially disturbing when one considers that some vanadyl sulfate vendors recommend that
athletes consume almost six times the amount of vanadyl sulfate used in the studies.
(http://products.gcinutri.com/p7330.htm)
To test the fact that vanadium could potentially be accumulating in the body as a result of vanadyl sulfate
supplementation, another research group tested vanadyl sulfate’s toxicity at even higher doses.  In the study,
death rates for the rats exposed to high levels of vanadyl sulfate were as high as 50%.  They were cured of
diabetes, but such results are certainly not considered positive with such a high mortality rate.
(http://www.frsa.com/buyerbeware.html)

Conclusion

    It appears that vanadyl sulfate’s promise is simply too good to be true.  When introduced it appeared that
researchers had finally discovered a successful insulin-mimicker that could benefit both athletes and
diabetics.  But instead of backing up their claims, research has refuted the assertions of vanadyl sulfate
suppliers.  It appears that vanadyl sulfate does little for athletic performance and has the potential to be harmful.  While it might possibly be developed as an alternative treatment for diabetes, the toxicity questions will remain.
 While there is always room for more testing, it appears that the future is definitely not very bright for vanadyl sulfate.  It is simply not worth the risk.
 


References.

Guyton AC, Hall JE. Textbok of Medical Physiology: Insulin, Glucagon, and Diabetes Mellitus. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa; WB Saunders Co; 1996:971-982.

Richter et al.. Skeletal Muscle Metabolism in Exercise and Diabetes: An Overview of Muscle Glucose Uptake during Exercise: Sites of Regulation. New York, New York; Plenum Press; 1998:1-16.

Ishii et al.  Resistance Training Improves Insulin Sensativity in NIDDM Subjects Without Altering Maximal Oxygen Uptake. Diabetes Care. 1998.21.Aug.

Cohen et al.  Oral Vanadyl Sulfate Improves Hepatic and Peripheral Insulin Sensitivity in Patients with Non-Insulin-dependent Diabetes Mellitus. Journal of Clinical Investigation. 1995. 2501-2509.

Harland, Harden-Williams. Is Vanadium of Human Nutritional Importance Yet? Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1994. 891-894.

Fawcett et al. The Effect of Oral Vanadyl Sulfate on Body Composition and Performance in Weight-Training Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition.1996.6.382-390.

Boden et al. Effects of Vanadyl Sulfate on Carbohydrate and Lipid Metabolism in Patients With Non-Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus.Metabolism , 45: 1130-1135, 1996.

Elkin, Brady, Wiliams. Bodybuilders Find it Easy to Obtain Insulin to Help Them in Training. British Medical Journal. 1997;314:1280


 

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