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Illnesses and disabilities

Vanadium imbalance

Category: Illness or disabilities

Introduction and description

Vanadium is a chemical element with the symbol V and atomic number 23. It is a hard, silvery-grey, malleable transition metal. The elemental metal is rarely found in nature, but once isolated artificially, the formation of an oxide layer (passivation) somewhat stabilizes the free metal against further oxidation.   Vanadium occurs naturally in about 65 minerals and in fossil fuel deposits.

Vanadium is present in the earth's crust at an average concentration of 110 mg/kg. It is concentrated mainly in mafic rocks (basalt 200-250 mg/kg) and shales (100-130 mg/kg), lowest concentrations are found in limestones and dolomites (10-45 mg/kg). The average vanadium content of soils worldwide has been calculated to vary from 18 (peat) and 115 mg/kg (Rotliegende weathering soils).

Vanadium has a role in biological processes, where it is described as an essential trace element, but it is also used industrially and here it can become toxic!  It is produced in China and Russia from steel smelter slag. Other countries produce it either from magnetite directly, flue dust or heavy oil, or as a by-product of uranium mining. It is mainly used to produce speciality steel alloys such as high-speed tool steels. The most important industrial vanadium compound, vanadium pentoxide, is used as a catalyst for the production of sulfuric acid. The vanadium redox battery for energy storage may be an important application in the future.

Background and history

Andrés Manuel del Río discovered compounds of vanadium in 1801 in Mexico by analyzing a new lead-bearing mineral he called "brown lead", and presumed its qualities were due to the presence of a new element, which he named erythronium (derived from the Greek word for "red", ἐρυθρόν, eruthrón) since upon heating most of the salts turned red. Four years later, he was (erroneously) convinced by other scientists that erythronium was identical to chromium. Chlorides of vanadium were generated in 1830 by Nils Gabriel Sefström who thereby proved that a new element was involved, which he named "vanadium" after the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and fertility, Vanadís (Freyja). Both names were intended to describe the wide range of colours found in vanadium compounds. Del Rio's lead mineral was later renamed vanadinite for its vanadium content. In 1867 Henry Enfield Roscoe obtained the pure element.

The dual role of Vanadium

When considering the effects of Vanadium compounds the two main things that determine the outcome are whether the compound is ingested or inhaled, and whether it is organic or inorganic

  • Organic Vanadium compounds  if ingested in food and in minute quantities are not only not toxic, they are essential to life, and deficiencies may cause all sorts of metabolic disorders.
  • Inorganic Vanadium compounds and all Vanadium compounds taken in overdose or inhaled are considered toxic.  

Toxic effects

It is  Inhalation of vanadium and vanadium compounds that results in the major adverse effects – primarily on the respiratory system.  Thus the culprit here is the extraction, processing and manufacture of vanadium products.  Burning of fossil fuels causes about 110000 t V/a to enter the atmosphere globally.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set an exposure limit of 0.05 mg/m3 for vanadium pentoxide dust and 0.1 mg/m3 for vanadium pentoxide fumes in workplace air for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour work week. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended that 35 mg/m3 of vanadium be considered immediately dangerous to life and health, that is, likely to cause permanent health problems or death.

Beneficial effects

There is very clearly a biological role for Vanadium but in minute quantities.  Even as I write, it is still being discussed and researched  “Vanadium may well be found essential for some halogen peroxidases, …. involved in thyroid metabolism. It is to distinguish between nutritional (μg/day), pharmacological (mg/day) and toxic (mg/kg food dry matter) of vanadium” that research is ongoing.

Vanadium is used by some life forms as an active centre of enzymes, such as the vanadium bromoperoxidase of some ocean algae. Vanadium is also essential for several species of fungi and nitrogen-fixing microorganisms.   And in mammals such as human beings, cows and goats, it is now being treated like a mineral – a trace element that in this case, plays an important role in the proper functioning of carbohydrate and lipid metabolism.

In fact, Vanadium is now being grouped with two other trace metals - selenium and chromium-  that play crucial roles in controlling blood glucose concentrations.  In effect Vanadium is essential for maintaining homeostasis, and deficiency may cause disorders with metabolic and physiological imbalances.

Possible functions

Vanadium even in tiny trace amounts, appears to have a role in counteracting iodine in the thyroid, to ensure it does not malfunction.  In doing this it affects a whole host of processes – metabolism, the maternal cycle, the immune system, and by doing so helps to prevent the development of diabetes.

Maternal thyroid regulation
Intrauterine vanadium depleted goats develop poorly, their conception rate is significantly reduced, they exhibit a higher rate of spontaneous abortion, increased ratio of female to male kids born and a higher mortality. Vanadium deficient kids also suffer skeletal deformations in the forelegs. There is thus a hormonal connection. But according to researchers, the normative vanadium requirement for animals is with < 10 μg/kg feed dry matter.  

Although heavy metal exposure is known to affect both the birth weight and the viability of babies in general, it may be that Vanadium has a key role in regulating maternal thyroid hormone.  It is worth noting that a very large baby is just as at risk as a small baby, especially during birth.

Immunological role
Recent studies have shown  that certain vanadium compounds are involved in many immune-driven molecular mechanisms that regulate and influence immune responses.

Role of Vanadium in Cellular and Molecular Immunology: Association with Immune-Related Inflammation and Pharmacotoxicology Mechanisms

Emerging findings include optimal regulation of B/T cell signaling and expression of immune suppressive or anti-inflammatory cytokines, critical for immune cell effector functions. Furthermore, in-depth perusals have explored NF-κB and Toll-like receptor signaling mechanisms in order to enhance adaptive immune responses and promote recruitment or conversion of inflammatory cells to immunodeficient tissues. PMID:  27190573

Insulin mimicry and metabolic function
As long ago as 1990, researchers found a connection between Vanadium, Iodine and the thyroid

Magnes Trace Elem. 1990;9(4):219-26.  Effect of vanadium, iodine and their interaction on growth, blood variables, liver trace elements and thyroid status indices in rats. - Uthus EO1, Nielsen FH.

Male weanling Wistar-Kyoto rats were fed a 16% casein 68% acid-washed ground corn diet for 8 weeks. The variables were supplemental vanadium at 0 or 1 microgram/g and supplemental iodine at 0, 0.33 or 25 micrograms/g. Vanadium deprivation increased thyroid weight and thyroid weight/body weight ratio and decreased the concentration of vanadium in liver. Vanadium and iodine interacted such that, as dietary iodine was increased, plasma glucose increased in the vanadium-deficient rats but decreased in the vanadium-supplemented rats. The findings suggest that vanadium may have a physiological role affecting iodine metabolism and thyroid function.  PMID:  2095166

Compounds of the trace element vanadium exert various insulin-like effects in in vitro and in vivo systems. These include their ability to improve glucose homeostasis and insulin resistance in animal models of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes mellitus. In addition to animal studies, several reports have documented improvements in liver and muscle insulin sensitivity in a limited number of patients with Type 2 diabetes.

Insulino-mimetic and anti-diabetic effects of vanadium compounds.

Compounds of the trace element vanadium have the ability to stimulate glucose uptake, glycogen and lipid synthesis in muscle, adipose and hepatic tissues and to inhibit gluconeogenesis, and the activities of the gluconeogenic enzymes: phosphoenol pyruvate carboxykinase and glucose-6-phosphatase in the liver and kidney as well as lipolysis in fat cells contributes as potential mechanisms to their anti-diabetic insulin-like effects.
At the cellular level, vanadium activates several key elements of the insulin signal transduction pathway, such as the tyrosine phosphorylation of insulin receptor substrate-1, and extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1 and 2, phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase and protein kinase B activation. These pathways are believed to mediate the metabolic actions of insulin. PMID: 15606684

In other words, it has been suggested that vanadium has a natural role in the body enhancing insulin signalling and action by virtue of its capacity to inhibit PTPase activity and increase tyrosine phosphorylation of substrate proteins.

Interestingly researchers have found that only the naturally occurring organo-vanadium compounds do this, and that available inorganic vanadium salts are potentially toxic.  Nevertheless there are indications that Vanadium deficiency may be a contributory factor in diabetes.

Sources of Vanadium

As we have seen Vanadium is an essential trace element.  In terms of sources of Vanadium, all foodstuffs that are rich in starch and sugar tend to be poor in vanadium (5-40 μg V/kg dry matter, dm); on the other hand mushrooms and leafy vegetables potentially contain higher levels of vanadium (100 to > 1000 μg V/kg dm).

Beer and wine (30 to 45 μg/l can also be a good source of  vanadium. In Germany and Mexico, women with a mixed diet might take in 10 to 20 μg V/ day and men 20 to > 35 μg V/day. The high intake results from the higher beer consumption of men. Vegetarians take in significantly more vanadium.

According to Dr Duke’s Phytochemical database, the following are sources of vanadium.  But we have to take into account the rider at the end of this list
*Unless otherwise noted all references are to Duke, James A. 1992. Handbook of phytochemical constituents of GRAS herbs and other economic plants. Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press.

  • Anacardium occidentale , Cashew, Seed, *
  • Anethum graveolens , Dill, Leaf,
  • Asparagus officinalis , Asparagus, Shoot, *
  • Bertholletia excelsa , Brazil nut, Seed,
  • Brassica oleracea var. capitata l. , Cabbage, Leaf,
  • Carya illinoensis , Pecans, Seed, *
  • Carya glabra , Pignut hickory, Shoot, *
  • Carya ovata , Shagbark hickory, Seed, *
  • Cocos nucifera , Coconut, Seed,
  • Corylus avellana , Hazelnut, Seed,
  • Diospyros virginiana , Persimmon, Stem, *
  • Diospyros virginiana , ditto, Leaf, *
  • Juglans cinerea , Butternut, Seed, *
  • Juglans nigra , Black walnut, Seed,
  • Juniperus virginiana , Red cedar, Shoot, *
  • Lactuca sativa , Lettuce, Leaf, *
  • Linum usitatissimum , Linseed, Seed,
  • Liquidambar styraciflua , Sweet gum, Stem, *
  • Liquidambar styraciflua , ditto, Leaf, *
  • Lycopersicon esculentum , tomato, Fruit, *
  • Nyssa sylvatica , Black gum, Stem and leaf
  • Panax quinquefolius , Ginseng, Plant
  • Phaseolus vulgaris , Green beans, Fruit
  • Phaseolus lunatus , Butter bean, Seed
  • Pimenta dioica , Allspice, Plant
  • Pinus echinata , Shortleaf pine, Shoot
  • Pistacia vera , Pistachio, Seed
  • Prunus serotina , Black cherry, Leaf and Stem
  • Prunus dulcis , Almonds, Seed
  • Pyrus communis , Pears, Fruit
  • Quercus rubra , Northern red oak, Seed
  • Quercus velutina , Black oak, Stem
  • Quercus alba , White oak, Stem
  • Quercus rubra , Red oak, Stem
  • Rhus copallina , Sumac, Stem and leaf
  • Sassafras albidum , Sassafras, Stem and leaf
  • Symphoricarpos orbiculatus ,  Buckbush, Stem
  • Vigna unguiculata , Asparagus bean, Seed
  • Zea mays , Sweet corn, Seed

This list assumes that the soil on which the original crops are grown are not depleted.  Depleted soils end up very poor in Vanadium and thus factory farming of animals and intensive farming is likely to produce deficiencies.

The natural release of vanadium to water and soils occurs primarily as a result of weathering of rocks and soil erosion.  Low levels of vanadium benefit plants helping to elevate plant height, root length, and biomass production due to enhanced chlorophyll biosynthesis, seed germination, essential element uptake, and nitrogen assimilation and utilization.

However, high vanadium concentrations “disrupt energy metabolism and matter cycling; inhibit key enzymes mediating energy production, protein synthesis, ion transportation, and other important physiological processes; and lead to growth retardation, root and shoot abnormalities, and even death of plants. The threshold level of toxicity is highly plant species-specific, and in most cases, the half maximal effective concentration (EC50) of vanadium for plants grown under hydroponic conditions and in soil varies from 1 to 50 mg/L, and from 18 to 510 mg/kg, respectively."

Researchers have established the fact that some plants are chelators of vanadium at high – overdose level – quantities.  And these plants are being considered for Phytoremediation with the assistance of soil amendments and microorganisms as a promising method for decontamination of vanadium polluted soils.

Plants such as Chinese green mustard, chickpea, and bunny cactus are able to sequester high concentrations of vanadium in their tissues, and thus are suitable for decontaminating and reclaiming of vanadium-polluted soils on a large scale. Soil pH, organic matter, and the contents of iron and aluminum (hydr)oxides, phosphorus, calcium, and other coexisting elements affect the bioavailability, toxicity, and plant uptake of vanadium. Mediation of these conditions or properties in vanadium-contaminated soils could improve plant tolerance, accumulation, or exclusion, thereby enhancing phytoremediation efficiency.

It is worth adding that Vanadium phytotoxicity (chlorosis and dwarfing) in contaminated soils can affect animals badly inducing:

black diarrhoea, weakness, spontaneous abortions, decreased milk production and high mortality in animals. Vanadium inhibits the Na+ - K+ ATPase and open the potassium-channels of the erythrocyte membrane. In humans, the threshold level for vanadium toxicity is > 3 mg/day. Higher doses can induces diarrhea, green tongues, haematological changes and lowered cysteine content in hair and nails.”

References and further reading

  • Anke, Manfred (2004). "Vanadium – An element both essential and toxic to plants, animals and humans?". Anal. Real Acad. Nac. Farm. 70: 961.
  • Experientia . 1989 May 15;45(5):452-7. doi: 10.1007/bf01952027.   Vanadium Biochemistry: The Unknown Role of Vanadium-Containing Cells in Ascidians (Sea Squirts)  - M J Smith   PMID: 2656286
  • Biol Trace Elem Res. 2018 Nov;186(1):52-67. doi: 10.1007/s12011-018-1289-y. Epub 2018 Mar 9.  Vanadium in Biosphere and Its Role in Biological Processes. - Tripathi D, Mani V, Pal RP.National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, Haryana, India.
  • Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:4013639. doi: 10.1155/2016/4013639. Epub 2016 Apr 11.  Role of Vanadium in Cellular and Molecular Immunology: Association with Immune-Related Inflammation and Pharmacotoxicology Mechanisms.- Tsave O1, Petanidis S1, Kioseoglou E1, Yavropoulou MP2, Yovos JG2, Anestakis D3, Tsepa A4, Salifoglou A1.
  • Diabet Med. 2005 Jan;22(1):2-13. Insulino-mimetic and anti-diabetic effects of vanadium compounds. Srivastava AK1, Mehdi MZ.
  • Curr Hypertens Rep. 2017 Mar;19(3):10. doi: 10.1007/s11906-017-0701-x.  Selenium, Vanadium, and Chromium as Micronutrients to Improve Metabolic Syndrome. - Panchal SK1, Wanyonyi S1, Brown ;  Institute for Agriculture and the Environment, University of Southern Queensland, QLD, Toowoomba, 4350, Australia.
  • Science of The Total Environment  Volume 712, 10 April 2020, 135637  Review of plant-vanadium physiological interactions, bioaccumulation, and bioremediation of vanadium-contaminated sites

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