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Chromium is an essential mineral that plays a role in how insulin helps the body regulate blood sugar levels. Insulin is a hormone that your body uses to change sugar, starches, and other food into energy needed for daily life.
There is some evidence that chromium supplements may help people with diabetes lower blood sugar levels. People with diabetes either do not make enough insulin or cannot properly use the insulin that their bodies make. As a result, glucose or sugar builds up in the bloodstream.
As many as 90% of American diets are low in chromium, but it’s rare to be truly deficient in chromium. The elderly, people who do a lot of strenuous exercise, those who eat a lot of sugary foods, and pregnant women are most likely to be deficient in chromium. Low chromium levels can increase blood sugar, triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), cholesterol levels, and increase the risk for a number of conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Good chromium food sources include whole grain breads and cereals, lean meats, cheeses, and some spices, such as black pepper and thyme. Brewer’s yeast is also rich in chromium.
Clinical studies suggest that chromium supplements may be helpful for the following conditions:
Researchers have studied the effects of chromium supplements for type 2 diabetes for many years. While some clinical studies have found no benefit, other clinical studies have reported that chromium supplements may reduce blood sugar levels as well as the amount of insulin people with diabetes need.
In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, people with type 2 diabetes who took chromium picolinate had better HbA1c values -- used to measure long-term control of blood sugar levels -- than those who took placebo. The group taking chromium also had better fasting blood glucose levels, a measure of short-term control of blood sugar levels.
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study looked at a combination of chromium and biotin. Half the people in the study took chromium picolinate and biotin, and the other half took placebo. Those who took chromium and biotin had better fasting glucose levels as well as HbA1c values.
One study found that women who have diabetes as a result of being pregnant improved their blood sugar control when they took chromium.
But not all studies agree, and if chromium does help reduce blood glucose, it’s not clear how big the benefit might be. More research is needed.
Weight loss and obesity
Chromium is often advertised as a weight-loss aid and a way to improve lean muscle and reduce body fat. Studies have been mixed, with some finding that chromium may help people lose weight and build muscle, and others finding that it had no effect. If chromium does work for weight loss, it seems that the effects are small compared to those of exercise and a well-balanced diet.
Chromium is popular with some body builders and can be found in some sports nutrition supplements. But there is not much evidence that chromium helps people gain strength or build muscle mass. Most studies have been negative.
Animal studies suggest that chromium may help lower blood pressure. But so far it has not been tested in people, so researchers don’t know if it would work.
Clinical studies about whether chromium can lower cholesterol have been mixed. Some suggest that chromium may lower LDL or bad cholesterol, including one study that combined chromium with grape seed extract. In another study, people who were taking beta-blockers found that taking chromium raised their HDL or good cholesterol levels.
One small study found that chromium picolinate improved symptoms of depression in people with atypical depression. But a larger study found that chromium didn’t help. More research is needed.
Food sources of chromium include brewer's yeast, lean meats (especially processed meats), cheeses, pork kidney, whole-grain breads and cereals, molasses, spices, and some bran cereals.
Brewer's yeast, particularly yeast grown in chromium-rich soil, is a rich dietary source of chromium, as are organ meats, mushroom, oatmeal, prunes, nuts, asparagus, and whole grains and cereals. Vegetables, fruits, and most refined and processed foods, except for processed meats, have low amounts of chromium.
Chromium is commercially available in several forms, including chromium nicotinate, chromium histidinate, chromium picolinate, chromium-enriched yeast, chromium chloride, and glucose tolerance factor chromium (GTF). Chromium is available as part of many multivitamins or alone in tablet and capsule forms.
How to Take It
Amounts of chromium are based on the Dietary Reference Intakes from the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine.
Researchers don’t know what the safe and tolerable upper limits are for chromium. The recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of chromium are as follows:
Chromium supplements: Most studies have used 200 mcg chromium, 1 - 3 times a day. Some studies of people with diabetes have used much higher doses, but scientists don’t know whether those amounts are safe to use long term. If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor to see if chromium is right for you, and to determine the best dose. Don’t give chromium supplements to a child.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Chromium from foods is generally considered safe. As a supplement, very high doses of this mineral can reduce how effective insulin is at controlling blood sugar and cause stomach irritation, itching, and flushing. There have also been rare reports of fast, irregular heart rhythms and liver problems from too much chromium. Two cases of kidney damage have been reported from the use of chromium picolinate supplements.
There are some reports that chromium may make depression and anxiety or schizophrenia worse, although other reports suggest it helps depression. Ask your health care provider before taking chromium if you have either of these conditions.
People with chromate or leather contact allergies may be allergic to chromium.
People with liver or kidney problems, or people with anemia, should not take chromium without first talking to their health care providers.
The chromium you get from foods is not the same as the industrial form of chromium that is absorbed by the lungs, digestive tract, mucous membranes, and skin. Industrial chromium is a toxic material. People are usually exposed to it either when it gets on their skin or when they breathe in the dust.
If you are being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use chromium without first talking to your health care provider:
Antacids -- Animal studies suggest that antacids, particularly those containing calcium carbonate (including Tums and Mylanta), may reduce the amount of chromium your body absorbs. Other antacids that may interfere with chromium absorption include esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), and omeprazole (Prilosec). Avoid taking chromium supplements at the same time as antacids.
Diabetes medications -- Because chromium may lower blood sugar levels, it may make these medications stronger, raising the risk of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. If you take diabetes medications, including insulin, metformin (Glucophage), glyburide (Diabeta), glipizide (Glucotrol), or chlorpropamide (Diabenese), talk to your health care provider before taking chromium. Your medication doses may need to be adjusted.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) -- These medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve), are used to relieve pain. Taking NSAIDs may raise chromium levels in the body.
Corticosteroids (prednisone) -- Taking steroids to reduce inflammation may lower chromium levels in the body.
Levothyroxine (Synthroid) -- Theoretically, chromium may decrease how much Synthroid the body absorbs.
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Review Date: 4/2/2011
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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