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International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 1996, 6,382-390

O 1996 Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

The Effect of Oral Vanadyl Sulfate


on Body Composition and Performance
in Weight-Training Athletes
J. Paul Fa wcett, Stephen J. Farquhar, Robert J. Walker,
Thearoth Thou, Graham Lowe, and Ailsa Goulding
The effects of oral vanadyl sulfate (VOSO,) (0.5 mgkglday) on anthropometry,
body composition, and performance were investigated in a 12-week, doubleblind, placebo-controlled trial involving weight-training volunteers. Performance was assessed in the treatment (VS) and placebo (P) groups using 1 and
10 repetitions maximum (RM) for the bench press and leg extension. Thirtyone subjects completed the trial, with 2 VS subjects withdrawing because of
apparent side effects. There were no significant treatment effects for anthropometric parameters and body composition during the trial. Both groups had
significant improvements in performance but the only significant effect of
treatment was a Treatment X Time interaction in the 1 RM leg extension @ =
.002), which could have arisen because the VS group had a lower performance
at baseline in this test. It was concluded that oral vanadyl sulfate was ineffective
in changing body composition in weight-training athletes, and any modest
performance-enhancing effect requires further investigation.
Key Words: anthropometry, dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, bench press, leg
extension, sport nutrition

Approximately 23 years prior to the discovery of insulin, Lyonnet et al.


observed that orally administered sodium vanadate improved glycosuria in diabetic
patients (13). The insulin-mimetic activity of vanadium compounds was rediscovered in 1980, when it was shown that the oxovanadium ion (V02+)stimulates
glucose oxidation in rat adipocytes (23). Subsequent work by McNeill and coworkers revealed that oral administrationof oxovanadium sulfate (VOSO,, vanadyl
sulfate) also lowers blood glucose and blood lipids in rats with streptozotocininduced diabetes and prevents secondary complications of diabetes such as retinopathy and cardiac dysfunction (2,11,19). Evidence now suggests that vanadate is
converted to vanadyl intracellularly and that the vanadyl ion is the active insulinmimetic species (20,21).
J.P. Fawcett, S.J. Farquhar, and T. Thou are with the School of Pharmacy, G. Lowe
is with the School of Physical Education, and R.J. Walker and A. Goulding are with Otago
Medical School, University of Otago, P.O. Box 913, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Vanadyl Sulfate

/ 383

The metabolic effect of insulin is to promote an anabolic state whereby total


body stores of carbohydrate,protein, and fat are increased (6). The anabolic effects
of vanadium compounds are unclear since evidence for stimulation of amino acid
uptake and improved protein synthesis is limited to in vitro studies of rat skeletal
muscle cells (17). Despite uncertainty about the effects and potential toxicity of
vanadium compounds in healthy individuals, claims have emerged that VOSO, is
a useful supplement for weight-training athletes as an anabolic and ergogenic agent
(7). Anecdotal evidence from athletes taking up to 60 mg vanadyl sulfate daily as
a nonsteroidal anabolic agent suggeststhat it may be effective when taken orally for
2 to 3 months at a time. For comparison, the daily dietary intake of vanadium is
estimated as 10-60 yg, and no naturally occurring vanadium deficiency disease has
been described in humans (18).
There are limited data on oral dosing with vanadium compoundsin controlled
studies or therapeutic trials. A trial of diarnmonium oxytartratovanadate (75-125
mglday) for 5 months as a potential cholesterol-lowering agent produced clear
evidenceof gastrointestinaltoxicity in 6 out of 12 patients (24). More recent studies
of insulin-dependentand non-insulin-dependentdiabetics have shown that vanadyl
sulfate (100 mglday) for 3 weeks (4) and sodium vanadate (125 mglday) for 2 weeks
(9) were well tolerated except for some mild gastrointestinal upset. Vanadyl
compounds appear to be less toxic than vanadate (1,22), and tests in rats have shown
that chronic administration of vanadyl sulfate for 1 year in drinking water does not
alter cardiovascular or hematological indices (5). Since vanadyl sulfate is freely
availablein anumber of countries and is being actively promoted for use by normal,
healthy, nondiabetic athletes in doses of up to 60 mg daily for up to 3 months,
we undertook a study of the effects of oral vanadyl sulfate in weight-training
athletes.

Materials and Methods


Subjects

Forty healthy individuals (30 males, 10 females) using weight training as part of
their fitness programs volunteered to participate in the study. Four individuals were
involved in power lifting. The study was approved by the Southern Regional Health
Authority Ethics Committee (Otago), and all participants gave their written informed consent. All subjects were between 19 and 39 years of age and had been
weight training for at least 1 year when the study began. Inclusion in the study was
dependent upon their training programs being constant (i.e., no buildup for
competitions) and balanced in terms of upper and lower body and aerobic and
anaerobic components.
The individuals were given a medical examination and were subject to
the following exclusion criteria: diabetes mellitus, psychiatric illness, use of
anabolic steroids or other anabolic agents, pregnancy, chronic illness, orparticipation in other drug trials. Subjects were asked to continue their current training
programs, diets, and other daily activities throughout the trial and were given
diaries to record their daily training routines. Volunteers were matched in pairs
on the basis of sex, age, weight, height, and training program, and one member
of each pair was randomly allocated to either the treatment (VS) or the placebo
(PI group.

384

/ Fawcett, Farquhar, Walker, et a/.

Procedures

A double-blind protocol was used. Vanadyl sulfate tablets (VOSO4.3H,O, 7.5 mg)
and placebo tablets were supplied by the manufacturer (SportPharma USA, Concord, CA). In order to ensure blinding, powdered tablets were encapsulated in
opaque capsules in an amount equivalent to 1 tabletkapsule. Each subject received
either vanadyl sulfate capsules or placebo capsules sufficient for 1month at a time,
at a dosage of 0.5 mgkglday for 12 weeks. This is the dosage recommended by the
manufacturer to "maximize muscle hardness, strength, and lean muscle mass." The
dosage regimen involved taking two capsules at a time with meals for the 12-week
period. Compliance was monitored by a capsule count at the end of each month
when subjects received their next bottle of capsules.
Subjects also completed a questionnaire at the conclusion of every physical
assessment regarding whether they had experienced any of the following side
effects in the previous month: gastrointestinal symptoms, muscle cramps, dizziness, changes in mood or libido, sweating, increased aggression,or disturbed sleep
patterns. As part of the same questionnaire they were asked whether they had
perceived changes in any of the following training-related parameters: muscle
fullness or size, strength, fatigue during or after training, hunger or thirst during or
after training, and desire to train longer or harder. The questionnairewas scored out
of 18 for side effects andfrom-14 to +14 for adverse or positive effects on training.
The measurements taken at baseline and after 4,8, and 12 weeks of treatment
included body weight, six skinfold measurements, three body circumference
measurements, and the 1 and 10 repetitions maximum (I RM and 10RM) tests for
bench press and leg extension. Whole-body lean and fat tissue was measured at the
beginning and end of the trial by dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA scan).
At each visit, fasting blood samples were collected for hematology, urea and
electrolytes, glucose, creatinine, insulin, and liver function tests. Midstream urine
samples (single void) were collected at 0,2,4,8, and 12 weeks and frozen at 80 "C
until analyzed for vanadium at the completion of the trial.
Anthropometric Measures

One investigator (GL) performed all body weight, skinfold, and circumference
measurements at each testing session. Body weight was measured with subjects
wearing minimal clothing. Circumferences (muscle girths) of the upper arm,chest
(after inspiration and expiration), and thigh were measured on standing subjects
using a nonelastic tape measure under consistent tension without compressing the
skin. Chest circumference was measured at the nipple level for men and at the
axillary level for women. Upper arm (bicepsitriceps) circumferencewas measured
on the peak of the maximally contracted biceps of the subject's dominant arm,and
dominant thigh circumference (quadriceps) was measured with the tape positioned
distal to the gluteal furrow and with the thigh muscle maximally contracted.
For the skinfold measurements, six sites (triceps, subscapular, suprailiac,
abdomen, thigh, andmedial calf) were chosen on the right-hand side for all subjects
and were measured in the same order each time. A double skinfold was raised 1 cm
proximal to the site, and the skinfold calipers were positioned perpendicular to the
fold. Measurementswere repeated until two sequential measurements at a given site
were within 0.5 mm of each other. The six values were combined to give a sum of
six skinfolds.

Vanadyl Sulfate / 385

DEXA Scan

DEXA measurements were made with a total-body scanner (Model DPX-L, Lunar
Radiation Corp., Madison, WI) in the Nuclear Medicine Department of Dunedin
Hospital. Subjects were scanned using a constant potential x-ray source at 12.5 fJ
and a K-edge filter (cerium) to achieve a congruent beam of stable dual-energy
radiation of 38 and 70 keV. A series of transverse scans were made from head to toe
at 1-cm intervals. The scan area was approximately 60 X 200 cm.
Data were collected for approximately 120pixel elements on each transverse
scan, each pixel being approximately 5 X 10 mrn. Of the 20,000-22,000 pixels in
a typical scan, the projection of the body involves 10,000-12,000 pixels; 4 0 4 5 %
of these contain bone and soft tissue and 55-60% contain soft tissue alone. Scans
were performed with a transverse scan speed of either 16 or 8 cm . s-', giving scan
times of 10-60 min for the total body determinationdepending on the subject's size.
The radiation doses, measured by thermoluminescentdensity with lithium fluoride
chips, were 0.05 and 0.1 pGy, respectively (14).
Performance Measures

For practical and safety reasons, RM testing was chosen as the most appropriate
method for measuring changes in strength (8). Jackson et al. suggested that the best
assessment measures of lower and upper body strength are the leg press and the
bench press, respectively (12). However, most weight-training machinery employs
the isokinetic leg extension as the major exercise to test leg strength because it is
easy to learn and effectively isolates the muscles contributing to extension at the
knee (15). Although our subjects had well-balanced training programs that included
the bench press, most had not included either the leg press or the leg extension
in their training. The leg extension was chosen to test strength in the lower
body, but subjects were asked not to alter the components of their current
training programs.
The bench press was performed using an Olympic@20-kg bar with a bench
and the leg extension on a category 111 cam-assisted Polaris@ leg extension
machine. After warm-ups with light weights, subjects performed the bench press
before the leg extension and the 10 RM prior to the 1 RM for each exercise. To
perform the bench press, subjects were required to lower the weight to the chest
(observedby spotters for their safety) and return it to the straight-armposition while
keeping the buttocks and feet on the bench. Subjects had to control the bar at
all times and maintain continuity of movement with no bounce off the chest.
In the leg extension, controlled and continuous movement was again required
with the subject sitting upright pushing the weight upward and extending the leg(s)
to the locked position. Both legs were used in the 10 RM, but males used the
dominant leg only in the 1 RM due to a limitation of weight (100 kg) available on
the leg extensionmachine. The weights for the 10RM exercises were selected based
on what the subjects considered they could perform with good technique. The 10
RM test was limited to a single set. The first attempt for the 1 RM was a weight
within 80% of subjects' self-reported 1 RM, and subsequent lifts were increased
until the subject either failed to complete the lift or indicated a maximum had been
reached. At each subsequent gym assessment, subjects were encouraged to attempt
heavier weights.

386

/ Fawcett, Farquhar, Walker, et a1

Blood and Urine Assays

Full blood count (Coulter counter) and plasma biochemistry were carried out by
laboratory staff of Dunedin Hospital using standard laboratory procedures. Insulin
was measuredby ELISA using the Enzymun-Test Insulin@(Boehringer Mannheim).
Vanadium in urine was analyzed by carbon furnace atomic absorption spectroscopy. Determinationswere performed on a Varian Spectra AA 40 at 3 18.4nm using
a pyrolytically coated graphite partition furnace and Zeeman background correction. Urine samples were acidified with 10% H,SO, and treated with 5% cupferron
before extracting vanadium into methyl isobutyl ketone. To correct for variations
in urine output, creatinine in urine was also determined allowing vanadium
concentrations to be quoted in yglg creatinine.
Data Analysis

Data are presented as mean SD. All criterion measures were analyzed by SPSS on
a PC-based system (Release 5.0, SPSS Inc., Chicago). A 2 X 2 X 4 factorial
ANOVA for treatment, gender, and time with repeated measures over time was used
to analyze the data for all parameters except DEXA scan, where a 2 X 2 X 2 factorial
ANOVA was used. For post hoc analysis, if required, we compared means at each
test point using the Bonferroni inequality for multiple comparisons. The level of
significance was set at p < .05.

Results
A total of 3 1 subjects (23 males, 8 females; mean age 28.0 years, range 19-39 years)
completed the trial of oral vanadyl sulfate. The subjects were equally divided
between the VS group (1 1 males, 4 females) and P group (12 males, 4 females).
Training histories revealed that the power lifters and those with previous experience
with the leg extension were equally distributed between the two groups. Two male
subjects in the treatment group withdrew within the first 6 weeks as a result of
apparent side effects: excessive tiredness during training in one case and excessive
tiredness and mood changes involving feelings of aggression and being shorttempered in the other case. Examination by a physician was unremarkable, and
hematology and blood biochemistry were within normal limits. Seven subjects
either did not attend the baseline physical assessment or withdrew for personal
reasons not related to the study. Examination of personal diaries revealed that all
subjects maintained consistency of training throughout the trial. Compliance as
assessed by capsules returned at 4, 8, and 12 weeks was satisfactory.
With regard to the subjective assessment of side effects, oral vanadyl sulfate
appeared to be well tolerated, with mean side effect scores (SD) after 4, 8, and 12
weeks of 1.7 (1.8), 1.7 (2. I), and 1.3 (1.8) for the VS group and 1.3 (1.4), 1.1 (1.6),
and 1.0 (1.4) for the P group, respectively (maximum score of 18). Between 7 and
9 participants in each group reported one or more side effects at every time point,
but the range of side effects was similar for the two groups. In general, the
participantsremained positive about training, except for the VS group after 8 weeks.
The scores for adverse or positive effects on training (-14 to +14) were 2.4 (2.6),
-0.2 (4.9), and 1.1 (2.8) for VS and 2.3 (3.8), 1.4 (2.9), and 1.2 (3.3) for the P group.
The negative score for VS at 8 weeks was mainly due to 2 males with scores of -9
and -10, who complained of general fatigue.

Vanadyl Sulfate / 387

The changes in mean weight, sum of six skinfolds, muscle girths, total
percentage fat and lean tissue (DEXA), and performance measures for the VS and
P groups during the trial are given in Table 1.Repeated-measuresANOVA revealed
that sex was a main effect in the analysis of weight, muscle girths except thigh, total
percentage fat and lean tissue (DEXA), and bench press. The absence of a sex effect
in the leg extension is possibly due to males performing the test with one leg,
whereas the females used both. Regarding changes in anthropometry, time was a
significantmain effect for weight and sum of six skinfolds but not for muscle girths
or DEXA parameters. Post hoc analysis of weight showed a significant withingroup increase from baseline for the VS group after 4 weeks. Sum of six skinfolds
was significantly higher than baseline for the VS group at 4,8, and 12 weeks and
for the P group at 12 weeks.
Regarding changes in performance measures, time was a significant main
effect in both bench press and leg extension, showing that both groups improved
with training. There was a significantTreatment X Time interaction in the 1 RM leg
extension ( p = .002), which post hoc analysis showed resulted from the VS group
improving more than the P group in the first 4 weeks. Although this interactioncould
arise due to a real effect, it is compromised by the fact that the VS group started at
a lower baseline than the P group. Nevertheless, the difference between the VS and
P groups in performance at baseline was not statistically significant (p = .13,
unpaired Student's t test).
There were no significantTreatment X Time interactions in hematologicalor
biochemical parameters or liver function tests after 12 weeks, and all values
remained within their normal ranges. After 8 weeks the VS group had significantly
higher levels of glucose (5.2 f 0.5 vs. 4.7 0.4 mmol . L-',p <.01) and insulin (9.4
? 3.2 vs. 6.7 +. 2.6 mIU . L-l, p < .01), whereas increases in the P group were not
significant (glucose 5.0 f0.5 vs. 4.6 ? 0.4; insulin 8.6 f 1.6 vs. 7.1 f5.5 mIU .L-I).
The vanadium concentration in urine of the VS group was elevated after 2 weeks
(51 f 30 vs. 0.5 +. 0.5 pglg creatinine at baseline) and remained at steady state for
the remainder of the trial (41 f 29,52 f 28,39 24 pglg creatinine at 4,8, and 12
weeks, respectively).

Discussion
Vanadyl sulfate has well-documented insulin-mimetic activity in non-insulindependent diabetes and experimental models of diabetes (1, 2). Animal studies
which show that vanadyl sulfate increases transport of glucose and is incorporated
into glycogen in muscle and liver (3, 10) suggest that it may also have anabolic and
ergogenic effects. In the popular bodybuilding literature, there are many anecdotal
reports that weight-training athletes taking oral vanadyl sulfate say their muscles
feel more full or "pumped" after training than when the athletes do not take the
supplement. However, we are unaware of any clinical studies investigating these
putative anabolic and ergogenic effects.
The aim of this study was to use DEXA scan, anthropometry, and performance measures to determine the effects of oral vanadyl sulfate in a healthy
population using weight training for fitness. The urinary excretion of vanadium in
the treatment group reached steady state after 2 weeks, suggestingthat plasma levels
remained at steady state for most of the trial. Despite the increased intake of vanadyl
ion, oral vanadyl sulfate did not significantly change body composition. The lack
of change in anthropometric measures and lean tissue by DEXA scan shows there

388 / Fawcett, Farquhar, Walker, etal.

Table 1 Anthropometry, Body Composition (DEXA), and Performance of Subjects


During the Clinical Trial of Oral Vanadyl Sulfate: Data are Mean (SD) at 0,4,8,
and 12 Weeks
Vanadyl sulfate (n = 15)
Variable

12

Placebo (n = 16)
0

12

Weight (kg)
Sum of six
skinfolds (mm)
Muscle girths (cm)
Chest (exp)
Chest (insp)
Upper arm
Thigh
Total % fat
(DEXA) (kg)
Total % lean
(DEXA) (kg)
Bench press (kg)
10 RM

Leg extension (kg)


10 RM
l RMt

* p < .05, **p < .01, Bonferroni inequality for comparison with 0 weeks. t p < .002 for
Treatment X Time interaction on repeated-measures ANOVA.

was no increase in lean body mass. Thus, this study did not support claims that
vanadyl sulfate is an anabolic agent.
Although major changes in body composition did not occur, both groups
showed small increases in body weight, which anthropometry suggests are due to
an increase in fat. The increase in weight and sum of six skinfolds was greater in the
VS group after 4 weeks but similar in both groups after 12 weeks, suggesting that
vanadyl sulfate may promote deposition of body fat over a short period. The small
but significant increases in blood glucose and insulin observed in the VS group

Vanadyl Sulfate / 389

imply that vanadyl sulfate may diminish insulin action, but further investigation is
required to substantiate this finding.
There were significant training effects in both measures of performance but
particularly in the leg extension tests. This is consistent with the fact that at the start
of the trial participants were familiar with the bench press but some were not as
familiar with the leg extension exercise. Both groups approached a performance
plateau in the leg extension tests toward the end of the trial, and improvements were
not accompaniedby concomitantincreases in muscle girths. The Treatment X Time
interaction in the 1 RM leg extension, suggesting that vanadyl sulfate accelerates
performance improvement produced by training, clearly requires confirmation. It
is interesting to note, however, that anecdotal evidence from athletes using the drug
supports the idea of a limited period of efficacy of about 1 month.
It has been suggested that athletes should carefully weigh the possible
benefits of vanadyl supplementation against the potential risks (16). The present
investigation shows that oral vanadyl sulfate has no favorable or consistent effects
on anthropometric measures after 12 weeks of use and may be associated with
excessivetiredness during and after training in some 20% of individuals. Tiredness
or fatigue as a result of exercise has not been previously recognized as a side effect
of vanadium ingestion. If any ergogenic effect exists, it appears to occur within 4
weeks. Further placebo-controlled studies of oral vanadyl sulfate, using larger
groups of weight trainers and bodybuilders carefully matched for performance, are
required to confirm any ergogenic effect.
Oral vanadyl sulfate at a dose of 0.5 mg/kg/day for 12 weeks caused no
gastrointestinal symptoms and no significant alterations in hematological or biochemicalparameters in weight-trainingathletes except for small increases in fasting
glucose and insulin. Vanadyl sulfate has no anabolic effect on lean muscle mass
when taken for 12 weeks but may have a modest ergogenic effect during the first
month. The possibility that vanadyl sulfate is associated with subjective feelings of
excessive fatigue during and after training requires further investigation.

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Acknowledgments
We wouldliie to thank the OtagoMedical Research Foundationfor financial supportand
SportpharmaUSA for kindly donating the vanadyl sulfate. We also thankh4r. TrevorWalmsley
for vanadium assays, Ms. Elspeth Gold and Mr. David Boulton for technical assistance, Mr.
Simon Davies for statistical expertise, and Ms. Liz Christie for typing the manuscript.
Manuscript received: October 30, 1995
Accepted for publication: August 5 , 1996