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Vanadium: Health Effects and Toxicity

Vanadium is a metallic element commonly found in foods, water, soil, air and in the human body. Like some other toxic heavy metals, trace amounts of vanadium are thought to be essential for human health. Some experts believe that this mineral is helping the body’s metabolism, while also promoting strong bones and teeth, fertility, proper thyroid function and the production of certain hormones. In industry, vanadium is used as an ingredient in making steel, ceramics and glass.

Vanadium finds its way into the body mainly through food and water but also through breathing. However, only about 5-10% of this mineral is actually absorbed in the body where excess vanadium accumulates and may reach toxic levels. High levels of protein, vitamin C, iron, aluminium and chloride in the diet are believed to prevent vanadium from being absorbed in the body. Unabsorbed vanadium is normally excreted through feces.

Potential Health Benefits of Vanadium

While not affecting men, some experts suggest that the lack of vanadium can hamper a woman’s ability to get pregnant. A lack of vanadium is also believed to cause a slowing down of red blood cell formation that can lead to anemia, problems with iron metabolism, fragile teeth and bones and poor cartilage formation. Some studies have shown that vanadium may have the same effects on blood sugar as insulin. It was found to lower blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes type 2 and also to improve insulin sensitivity. However, most scientists doubt that taking vanadium at doses far greater than the tolerable upper intake levels, which are needed to reduce blood sugar, is actually safe.

Health Risks Associated with Vanadium Overdose and their Symptoms

All vanadium compounds are considered to be toxic, though they are not regarded as serious health hazard. Adverse health effects of toxic amounts of vanadium can range from loss of appetite and common digestive problems (e.g., nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, gas, diarrhea and loose stool) to damage of the liver and nervous system, kidney failure and lack of growth. Other symptoms of vanadium toxicity include irritation of mucous membranes and the upper respiratory tract, inflammation of stomach and intestines, skin rash, nose bleeding and internal bleeding, dizziness and headaches, cardiovascular problems and behavioral changes.

Paradoxically (when considering the assumed health benefits mentioned above), high doses of vanadium may cause anemia, low white blood cell counts, sudden drop in blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia), high cholesterol, fertility problems and birth defects. Therefore, people with diabetes, kidney or liver disease, serious infections, anemia and high cholesterol, those taking anticoagulant medications and pregnant women should avoid supplements that contain vanadium. The latest research also indicates that vanadium may increase the risk of breast cancer. Inhaling vanadium may cause nose, throat and lung irritation, bronchitis and pneumonia. In addition, animal studies found that inhaling vanadium may raise the risk of developing lung cancer.

Dietary Sources of Vanadium

Metallic (elemental) vanadium rarely occurs in foods. But, vanadium compounds can be found naturally in seafood, soy, mushrooms, eggs, whole grain breads, cereals, buckwheat, vegetables (e.g., carrots, cabbage, dill weed, parsley, radishes, tomatoes), green beans, garlic, onions, black pepper, nuts, olive, peanut, safflower and sunflower oils, beer, wine, artificially sweetened beverages, strawberries and apples. Processed foods contain higher levels of this mineral because it is present in the metallic parts of the food processing equipment. The average diet provides between 10 and 20mcg of vanadium per day.

Vanadium in Supplement Form

Vanadium is also available in sports supplements, the aim of which is to boost performance. However, because of its toxicity, most physicians do not recommend the use of such supplements. In fact, scientists do not know whether people need vanadium supplements at all. The tolerable upper intake level of vanadium is 1.8mg per day.