Chromium: An Essential Trace Mineral That May Help Fight Diabetes, Obesity and Heart Disease


Chromium is an essential trace mineral that the body needs to grow properly and remain healthy. It is required during several biochemical reactions within your cells. For example, chromium is important in the burning of carbohydrates and fats in your body.

Essential trace minerals, like chromium, are minerals that your body cannot produce under its own steam, so it needs to get the mineral from the food you eat. Chromium is found in drinking water and in many foodstuffs, such as grains, yeast, nuts, fish, and potatoes.

But if you are relying on getting all your necessary supplies of chromium from your diet, there could be a problem. Its not easy to guess exactly how much chromium is contained in a particular foodstuff because amounts vary according to the month of the season, cultivation area, country of origin, etc.

No one knows for sure how much chromium we need to be healthy, but the National Academy of Sciences in the USA recommends an average intake of 50 to 200 micrograms a day to meet our normal requirements. The problem is that with age, or when you are under stress or have an infection, your requirements of chromium may increase so you will need to take it in supplement form to boost your supplies.

A serious chromium deficiency is rare. But what is common is a mild deficiency of chromium which frequently does not show up in blood tests. A common sign of mild chromium deficiency is high blood sugar, which may lead to lack of energy, tiredness and inability to exercise for long periods.

Since chromium is involved in biochemical reactions, it may be useful against serious diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Chromium helps insulin break down sugar 
Chromium appears to boost the action of insulin which is the hormone that breaks down sugar molecules in your body. When the sugar is broken down it can then easily circulate in your bloodstream and be used by your cells to produce energy needed for everyday survival.

Researchers from the Clinical Epidemiology, Mexican Social Security Institute, in Durango, Mexico have recently examined the role that chromium and other minerals such as magnesium have on sugar metabolism. They acknowledged that chromium may have a beneficial role to play in diabetes and confirmed that it is an essential mineral involved in the metabolism of sugars in the body. They also confirmed that it has no side-effects. The researchers concluded that the most common cause of chromium deficiency is inadequate diet, and that the first step against diabetes and high blood sugar is to follow a proper diet rich in chromium minerals (Arch Med Res 2005;36(3): 250-7).

In another recent experiment, scientists form the Center for Cell Signaling, University of Virginia School of Medicine, USA, have found that chromium works by boosting a certain enzyme called insulin receptor kinase (Biochemistry 2005;44(22): 8167-75).

This enzyme makes it easier for insulin to bind to your cells and break down sugars. This is important because in diabetes, insulin (even in large amounts) cannot easily bind to cells, thereby becoming unable to break down any sugar molecules. In other words, it is possible that chromium treatment may be a way round the ordinary treatments for diabetes which merely stimulate your body to produce more insulin.

This mechanism of action of chromium has attracted the interest of many scientists who are trying to find treatments against diabetes. One study revealed that chromium picolinate may be an ideal treatment for diabetics who smoke (Med Hypotheses 2005;64(6): 1220-4). 

It is well known that smoking worsens diabetes by making it very difficult for insulin to bind to the cells. By activating the enzyme insulin receptor kinase, chromium is able to reverse the negative effects of smoking in diabetes. The researchers concluded the study by saying that: Such an effect might be useful not only for smokers, but for others…

Chromium is becoming very popular with nutritionists and herbal health practitioners. In a survey conducted by Italian nutritionists, chromium (together with vanadium and biotin) was among the three most commonly recommended dietary supplements for use against diabetes(Acta Diabetol 2004;41(3): 91-8).

What to take for best results
The dose is up to 200 micrograms daily. One particular chemical variant of ordinary chromium is called chromium picolinate. This has all the beneficial properties of chromium and it is available in tablet form which is easily absorbed from your bowel into your bloodstream.

Contraindications: Bear in mind that much higher doses can cause stomach upset, nausea or kidney problems. If you have diabetes, check with your doctor before using a chromium supplement because it may alter insulin requirements or the dosage needed for various diabetes medications.

Also, consult your doctor before taking chromium picolinate if you suffer from any type of behavioural disorder because compounds similar to picolinic acid have been shown to cause changes in certain brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. Dont take supplemental chromium if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Chromium deficiency is associated not only with diabetes, but with obesity and heart disease as well
In addition to its link with diabetes, chromium may have a role to play in obesity and weight loss. There is an acknowledged link between diabetes and obesity. Chromium has been used specifically against obesity, even in patients who are not diabetics (Curr Drug Targets CNS Neurol Disord 2004;3(5): 341-56).

The exact way chromium works in this situation is not known, but many diet practitioners are recommending chromium as an aid to weight loss. The commonly used variant is chromium picolinate.

Both diabetes and obesity increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. In an experiment, doctors from the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health in the US, measured the amount of chromium present in the toenails of men aged 40-75 years. Chromium in toenails is a good way of finding out whether someone is deficient or not, because chromium stays in toenails for long periods.

They found that men who had diabetes and heart disease had a lower concentration of chromium compared to healthy men (Diabetes Care 2004;(9): 2211-6). The researchers implied that long-term chromium supplements may be of benefit to diabetic patients who are at risk from heart disease.

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