Vibrant Vs. SpectraCell Panels
Same day, same time, same arm, same vein, same catheter. How do they compare?
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor and this is not medical advice.
Vibrant America and SpectraCell both make micronutrient panels that they claim to comprehensively assess micronutrient status, but using very different methods.
How do they stack up?
I recently had both tests run at the same time. I was in the fasting state, which was not required by either test. The phlebotomist put one catheter in a vein of my left arm and drew the blood for both panels from it. I do not know in which order. They were effectively done at the same time.
Since these two tests were effectively done on the same sample of blood, it could be quite useful to see how they compare.
The main data from each panel are displayed in the footnote.
Overview of the Two Tests
The approach I took to constructing Testing Nutritional Status: The Ultimate Cheat Sheet (free to Masterpass members here) was to search the literature for the best-validated markers of nutritional status from depletion-repletion studies, and then to assemble the ideal panel from the ground up. For efficiency, I selected the Genova ION + 40 panel for the comprehensive screening, since it was the one panel that had the largest number of my desired markers. However, the comprehensive screening also includes many individual tests of blood concentrations from LabCorp or Quest, because many of these are not on the ION but are important, well validated markers of nutritional status.
The Cheat Sheet uses a combination of functional markers, which tell you whether a nutrient is doing its job, and nutrient concentrations, which tell you whether the nutrient is even there. These were selected based on what was validated in research, not on a philosophical belief that one or the other is better. However, I am a firm believer in combining nutrient concentrations with functional markers so that you can know whether the nutrients are being absorbed well, transported well, and fulfilling their functional roles.
The two panels up for discussion today take somewhat different approaches.
The Vibrant America panel looks at the concentration of each nutrient in the serum, which is extracellular, and in either white or red blood cells, which are intracellular.
The SpectraCell panel looks at the ability of each nutrient, supplied exogenously, to make white blood cells replicate in cell culture.
On the face of it, the utility of the Vibrant panel is obvious to me. The concentration of a nutrient in some fraction of blood is often a well validated marker of status for that nutrient. Regardless of how well validated the marker might be, differences between the intracellular and extracellular concentrations relative to what is expected for each could provide insights about how well you transport the nutrient into cells. In fact, the Vibrant panel could be used alongside the ION panel to capture almost everything in the Cheat Sheet’s comprehensive screening.
The utility of the SpectraCell panel is less clear to me. In principle, the fact that a nutrient made your white blood cells better able to replicate could mean that you need more of that nutrient. Or, it could mean that your white blood cells were in some way primed to demand more of it. For example, an inflammatory reaction might prime them to replicate faster, and make their replication limited by your vitamin D status, even if your vitamin D status is normal. I have criticized the SpectraCell test for this in the past, in What Makes a Good Marker of Nutritional Status?
With that said, if the white blood cells are limited by nutrients they don’t typically blow through quickly during replication, it would seem to at least support the hypothesis that your immune function could be limited by the supply of that nutrient. And it might, more broadly, mean you are deficient at the cellular level.
Background: Why I Got These Tests
The reason I got these tests is as follows.
I am investigating the possibility that I have a biotin transporter defect. This is because my serum biotin, tested for the first time in my life by LabCorp this summer, was in the bottom 10.25% of the normal range despite my biotin from food intake being very high on paper, I would guess in the top 95th percentile of the population. I verified my biotinidase is normal. Biotinidase is the enzyme that recycles biotin.
If I do have a biotin transporter defect, then my cellular levels of biotin should be much lower than the bottom 10.25% of the reference range. Suppose my biotin absorption from food is impaired by 90%. Then my absorption from my serum into my cells would be impaired another 90%. This would make my cellular concentration lower and my serum concentration higher simultaneously. If being in the bottom 10.25% of normal is a gross overestimation of my absorption of biotin from food, then my cells could be profoundly deficient.
It is generally thought that biotin is transported along with pantothenic and lipoic acids by the sodium-dependent multivitamin transporter (SMVT). Indeed, a genetic defect in this transporter has been found that causes defective cellular uptake of biotin. However, there is a case report of someone with defective biotin transport despite a normal SMVT gene sequence and a normal rate of pantothenic acid transport. There is also a non-SMVT biotin transporter identified in skin cells.
It may be that the SMVT gene has multiple splicing variants. One produces the “canonical” SMVT — the transporter everyone agrees exists — and this mainly serves to transport pantothenate, and perhaps lipoate. The other variant is produced from the same gene, but the mRNA is altered somewhat to make a transporter that has much greater specificity for biotin.
The only way to get my rate of biotin transport measured would be to see one of the few specialists in genetic defects of biotin metabolism so that they could measure it in their in-house lab. The materials needed for this are not available commercially, so no commercial labs can offer it as a ready-made test.
While I will see such a specialist if I develop more evidence in favor of my hypothesis, I wanted to get the next-best thing that could be easily ordered locally.
One is to order pre- and post-supplementation serum biotin from LabCorp. I have this ordered but have not done the test yet. I will take 100 micrograms of biotin and have my serum biotin measured before taking it and one hour after taking it and compare my serum response to what is shown in the literature.
The second was to get the Vibrant panel. It unfortunately does not measure biotin. However, it does measure pantothenic acid. If I had evidence of defective cellular pantothenic acid transport, that would support an SMVT defect. Since the issue of multiple transporters or multiple splicing variants is unsettled, a negative result would not be able to rule out my hypothesis.
The main reason to get SpectraCell is that I would be able to compare the two panels. I have generally been negative about SpectraCell in the past, so why not vet my bias? What if SpectraCell does a better job catching the problem? If it does, you all deserve to know about it.
Moreover, SpectraCell includes both biotin, pantothenate, and lipoic acid, all three nutrients thought to be transported by the SMVT.
Where The Two Panels Agree
While the two panels do not measure exactly the same nutrients, they both agreed that most of my nutrients had normal status.
However, the agreement essentially ends there. There is no correspondence between what the two panels identified as abnormal.
Abnormalities According to Vibrant
Vibrant flagged my serum potassium is high (barely), and flagged as low my white blood cell concentrations of K2, zinc, and selenium.
Vibrant considers my omega-3 index borderline deficient and my arachidonic acid-to-EPA ratio to be high. However, I disagree with their model for interpreting these fatty acids. I want robust levels of arachidonic acid and DHA, which I have. I don’t care about my EPA levels but I would rather have my AA-to-EPA ratio high than low.
Abnormalities According to SpectraCell
Spectracell had me borderline deficient in folate, oleic acid, glucose metabolism, chromium, coQ10, and lipoic acid.
SpectraCell flagged me as deficient in pantothenate and vitamin A.
Do Flags on One Look Near the Edge on the Other?
While not a single abnormality was flagged in common by the two tests, perhaps if they are run together we can look for more subtle agreement between them. Perhaps the nutrients flagged on one test look near the edge on the other.
SpectraCell doesn’t measure potassium, arachidonic acid, or EPA. However, it does look at the three nutrients flagged as low in WBCs by Vibrant: K2, zinc, and selenium. SpectraCell had K2 as 30% into the normal range, zinc as 37% in, and selenium as 74% in. These percentages appear to be the percent of the maximal white blood cell replication response expected. None of these three fall among the lowest unflagged percentages in the report, which are choline at 20% and B12 at 14%.
Another way to look at the report would be to visually inspect the nutrient for how close they are to their yellow “borderline” band. The nutrients right on the edge of yellow are biotin and vitamins B6, B12, and D. Again, no presence of the nutrients flagged by Vibrant.
Conversely, a little bit of sense can be made when looking at the Vibrant results for the nutrients flagged by SpectraCell.
The two flags for “deficient” on Spectracell were pantothenate and vitamin A.
On Vibrant, B5 is 22% into the normal serum range and 20% into the normal WBC range. Since these two values are similar, I seem to have no issue transporting B5 into cells. On this, there is no agreement between the two except to say that my B5 levels seem mediocre and perhaps I have a bigger problem utilizing the B5.
Vibrant has serum vitamin A 70% into the normal range and WBC vitamin A only 16% into the normal range. This actually does look like an issue getting my vitamin A into my WBCs, and could be driving their need for extra vitamin A to replicate, as shown in the SpectraCell report. This is consistent with my subjective experience, wherein I have always felt I needed an unusually large amount of vitamin A, with my immune function being one of the things that suffers in its absence.
If we move to the “borderline” flags in SpectraCell, less turns up.
Vibrant doesn’t measure lipoic acid, glucose, or oleic acid.
Vibrant doesn’t measure WBC chromium, but my serum chromium was 53% into the normal range.
My CoQ10 was 66% into the normal serum range, and 80% into the normal WBC range.
My Vibrant serum folate levels were 13.2 ng/mL. Consistent with most labs, they have no top for the folate reference range and use a low number (4.6) for its bottom. My value is almost three times the bottom of their reference range. In my experience with consulting clients, the optimal folate seems to be around 20 ng/mL. I would describe my folate as “OK” but neither “good” nor “borderline deficient.”
My Vibrant RBC folate was 275.4 ng/mL, which is just under 3 times the bottom of their reference range, again with no top. Serum folate tends to represent methylfolate, while RBC folate tends to represent total folate. My serum and RBC folate are similar, which suggests I have no problem making methylfolate, and this is also consistent with the fact that I have no genetic polymorphisms in the folate pathway.
I probably have a high need for folate because I engage in a lot of sunlight-seeking behavior in the warmer half of the year and tanning in the colder half to prevent the development of eczema. This has led to total control of what is otherwise terrible eczema, though I believe biotin deficiency is at the root of the eczema. However, sunlight destroys folate in the skin. While I do believe I would benefit from a little extra folate, I am avoiding any changes to my supplements until I finish investigating my biotin metabolism.
The fact that SpectraCell found me borderline deficient in folate suggests there is some block in my utilization of folate for DNA synthesis, which would be needed to drive WBC replication. Perhaps I have a problem with dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR), which is the main polymorphic gene involved in supporting folate utilization for DNA synthesis.
Visually inspecting the Vibrant graphs for non-flagged nutrients that look close to being flagged suggests my white blood cell levels of thiamin, niacin, B6, inositol, and carnitine were close, while my serum levels of copper and vitamin D were close. None of these line up with the SpectraCell flags, though B6 and D were on the edge in both reports.
Overall, there is little correspondence between what is flagged on one and what looks close to being flagged on the other. The one exception is that I may have a problem with cellular vitamin A transport that increases the demand for vitamin A during cellular replication, with the close-to-flag results on Vibrant offering some explanation for the deficient flag on SpectraCell.
Do These Tests Support my Biotin Hypothesis?
My initial interest in this was to see if there was any support for an SMVT defect in pantothenic acid transport on the Vibrant panel. Given that my levels of this vitamin are 22% into the normal serum range and 20% into the normal WBC range, it is very hard to argue that there is a transport issue. My levels are low-normal, but they are similar relative to the range extracellularly and intracellularly.
On the other hand, it is very interesting that SpectraCell flagged my pantothenate as deficient — one of only two such flags — with my lipoic acid being borderline and my biotin being close to the edge of borderline.
If I run with my hypothesis, I can use it to explain a lot of the results.
The lack of an apparent issue with transporting pantothenic acid into cells would be consistent with the case report of defective biotin transport and normal pantothenate transport.
As explained in High Protein? You Need More Biotin, biotin deficiency would compromise energy metabolism, and thus ATP production, as a result of impairing the function of the five biotin-dependent enzymes.
One of those is pyruvate carboxylase, needed for glucose metabolism. That could explain my borderline glucose/insulin result on Spectracell.
Several of these enzymes metabolize intermediates bound to coenzyme A (CoA), which is made from pantothenic acid. Their impairment results in CoA trapping, which would increase the need for pantothenic acid. This explains the deficient pantothenate on the SpectraCell.
One of these enzymes is acetyl CoA carboxylase, which is needed for fatty acid synthesis. Oleic acid is a major end product of fatty acid synthesis. Lipoic acid is a modified 8-carbon fatty acid and is thus also dependent on fatty acid synthesis. This could explain lipoic and oleic acids being borderline on SpectraCell.
CoQ10 and chromium might simply be compensating for biotin deficiency by pushing forward alternative ways of utilizing glucose and producing ATP.
The downstream consequences of any impairment in energy metabolism will be manifold. For this reason, I am going to repeat all of my testing after biotin repletion while keeping my diet and other supplements constant, so I can see just how broad-ranging the effects of biotin repletion are.
Then, I will see what if anything is left to solve.
Overall neither panel would ever have led me to my biotin hypothesis, and neither can confirm or refute it. However, I can see its potential footprint in the data, and I will be looking for whether I can make those feet start moving with biotin.
What If I Had Run Only SpectraCell?
If I had run only SpectraCell, I would conclude that my two biggest fish to fry were deficiencies of vitamin A and pantothenic acid.
I am of the opinion that vitamin A toxicity might be primarily driven by unused vitamin A, not by an excessive utilization of vitamin A. So if there is a block in its utilization, I believe I am better off investigating the cause rather than pumping vitamin A into my diet to the point the SpectraCell becomes normal. With SpectraCell alone, I would have nothing to temper the conclusion that I simply “need more vitamin A.”
The pantothenic acid, I believe, would be downright harmful.
When I did my long-form pantothenic acid podcast (Part 1, Part 2) I began to see myself in the pantothenate kinase deficiency patients, and to wonder if an impairment in B5 activation could underly why veganism had been so neurologically catastrophic for me.
As I wrote about in Three Health Issues Converge on One Bone, that led me to start supplementing with 500 milligrams of pantothenic acid. I started developing a foot-drop gait abnormality. As a precaution against the pantothenic acid blocking the transport of lipoic acid and biotin, I added 500 milligrams of lipoic acid and 5 milligrams of biotin. I set reminders in my phone to take the panothenic acid in the morning, the lipoic acid in the afternoon, and the biotin at night, so they would not inhibit each other’s absorption.
Within days of adding the lipoic acid and biotin, my gait abnormality disappeared.
I went to a neurologist who did many investigations including a brain MRI with and without contrast, a lumbar MRI without contrast, various electrostimulation tests, and a bunch of blood work. All of this led to nothing, because I had cured myself.
However, I consolidated my memory of this into “I cured myself by taking high doses of B vitamins” and completely forgot that the gait abnormality started after I added the pantothenic acid. I only stumbled into this when I recently looked up my email correspondence with a specialist in inborn errors of metabolism who I had planned to work with until COVID turned the world upside down and I forgot all about it.
I now believe that the gait abnormality was caused by pantothenic acid inhibiting the transport of biotin from my food, making a marginal deficiency into a severe deficiency, and that adding the biotin at night completely abolished this effect.
If I had blindly run the SpectraCell as my only test, I think I would have made my putative biotin deficiency worse, causing neurological harm, and would have put myself at risk of overdosing on vitamin A.
What If I Had Run Only Vibrant?
If I had run only Vibrant, I would conclude that my biggest problems were intracellular transport of K2, zinc, and selenium.
The K2 does not surprise me. I supplement with K2 every day because I have a polymorphism that decreases my vitamin K recycling. This is an impairment in vitamin K epoxide oxidoreductase and shows up in 23andMe as “warfarin sensitivity.”
This leads me to believe I probably need a higher dose of K2.
The Vibrant test says my serum zinc is normal at 0.6 micrograms per milliliter, but actually I would regard anything under 0.7 as deficient, though I prefer it be measured in plasma rather than serum. That the WBC level is flagged red while the serum level is normal supports an impairment in zinc transport. The transport of zinc, as with many minerals, is ATP-dependent, so I suspect this is driven by biotin deficiency and will not increase my zinc intake until I confirm whether biotin alone can fix this.
I’m very happy with my serum selenium — again, I wish this were measured in plasma — at 113 ng/mL. To me, the sweet spot is 120, with the optimal range 100-140. Excess selenium can cause oxidative stress and raise the risk of diabetes and possibly heart disease and cancer. I do not want to push my selenium any higher.
Yet my WBC selenium is flagged as low. Once again, low ATP could explain this. Selenoproteins deliver selenium to cells, which digest them to form free selenocysteine. This is then broken down to selenide, which needs ATP to be converted into selenophosphate and then further utilized. A backup in intracellular selenium utilization would most likely decrease cellular uptake of selenoproteins.
If I had run only the Vibrant panel, I think I would have correctly concluded that I need more vitamin K2, and would miss the importance of ATP in getting the zinc and selenium into my blood cells. Supplementing zinc would probably not hurt me, but I think supplementing selenium could worsen oxidative stress and would be a bad decision.
What Is Missing From These Panels?
The reason neither of these panels are leading me to or away from my biotin hypothesis is that neither of them include serum biotin levels.
It was LabCorp’s serum biotin measurement that was lower than any other nutrient I measured, was markedly discrepant with my diet as it appears on paper, and had the potential to explain an enormous amount of my health history.
I will be using whole genome sequencing and real-time biotin absorption data to confirm or refute the hypothesis, and I will be using repeat testing after biotin repletion to see how far and deep the putative biotin deficiency is affecting the rest of my data.
What Did I Learn From These Panels?
I see the Vibrant panel primarily as a more efficient way to get a bunch of nutrient concentrations measured that would require more hassle, more money, and more blood to get from LabCorp or Quest, though the latter labs would offer much better prospects for insurance coverage.
That said, neither LabCorp nor Quest offer vitamin K2.
My WBC concentrations of K1 are also quite low, though not flagged.
I already knew I have a high need for K2, but I found this a useful to quantify whether I am getting enough, especially since functional tests for K2 status are still not commercially available from anyone.
The combination of SpectraCell and Vibrant together paint an interesting picture of poor intracellular vitamin A concentrations, driven apparently by poor transport from serum. I will look further into this issue if it does not resolve upon biotin repletion.
Where Should These Panels Fit in Your Testing Arsenal?
I would consider Vibrant a very convenient way to test the blood concentrations of most nutrients that could be used alongside the ION as part of the comprehensive screening in the Cheat Sheet (free to Masterpass members here). However, you would still need to add serum biotin, since it is frustratingly not included. You would have a chance of learning some extra things from using the Vibrant panel, and you would probably save money if you pay out of pocket for all lab tests. I do not see it as something I need to add to the Cheat Sheet, but rather as an optional way of hitting a lot of points on the Cheat Sheet’s list with some bonuses thrown in.
I have a new appreciation for the use of SpectraCell for brainstorming. I do not consider it useful to rule in or out anything, since the method is not validated in depletion-repletion studies or against markers than have been validated in those studies, and since the results could often be explained by multiple hypotheses beyond simple nutrient deficiencies. Nevertheless, I would not have looked as closely at my non-flagged vitamin A Vibrant results had SpectraCell not flagged vitamin A as one of my two deficiencies. So, it has made me think, and I am glad I ran it.
The Bottom Line
SpectraCell can be useful for brainstorming, but shouldn’t be used to rule deficiencies in or out.
Vibrant is a very convenient and possibly cost-effective way to measure many nutrient concentrations in serum and blood cells. It does not include biotin and does not include functional markers of status. It is not comprehensive, but covers a useful chunk of information. In conjunction with functional markers, it can make up a big part of well-validated testing for nutrient status.
As For Me
This is a small part of the data I am assembling for my biotin hypothesis. Stay tuned for the main posts on biotin, which I am excited about and expect to be completely game-changing for me.
And For You?
Have you used either of these panels? If so, what did you learn? Let me know in the comments!
I am not a medical doctor and this is not medical advice. My goal is to empower you with information. Please make all health decisions yourself, consulting sources you trust, including a caring health care professional.
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This was such a fascinating read. Is there any chance that you have an issue with acetaldehyde levels? I recently read a pub med study that stated “We found that chronic exposure of NCM460 human colonic epithelial cells as well as human differentiated colonoid monolayers, to alcohol metabolites (acetaldehyde, ethyl palmitate, ethyl oleate) significantly inhibited biotin uptake and SMVT expression”. I do not drink alcohol ever but this seems to be the explanation for my chronically low biotin and vitamin A (retinoic acid) levels. Maybe I have reduced function of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase? I was addressing this with niacin but correcting my vitamin A with the recent large dose seems to have greatly reduced my need for biotin and opened up the way for me to take B6 which just might allow me to put niacin on the shelf. Just my current theory. Thanks for giving us a front seat to all this great data. It’s so helpful in getting a clearer understanding of the relationships between nutrients.
Interesting comparison. Thanks for sharing it.
Have you checked your genetic data for biotinadase (BTD) variants? https://www.geneticlifehacks.com/genetics-of-biotin-deficiency/