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Chromium Picolinate: An 18th Century Blood Sugar Fix?

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Posted Tuesday, Apr. 5th, 2016

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This essential nutrient is typically found in certain foods like meat, fish, oils, eggs, and more…

But these days, you’re more likely to find it as a supplement in the medicine cabinets of athletes, weightlifters, and wannabe jocks.

Proponents swear that the compound can help melt away pounds, pack on muscle, and improve athletic performance.

But before you rush out to add this supplement to your weight loss regimen, consider this:  There’s not a lot of heft to claims that it will help you bulk up or slim down.

However, there IS good clinical evidence for its use is as a treatment for type 2 diabetes.

It’s Elemental…

Although chromium was first discovered in the late 18th century, it wasn’t recognized as an important nutrient until the 1940s.

Today, we know chromium as one of the 15 trace elements necessary for proper functioning and metabolism.  Specifically, it helps metabolize carbohydrates, fats, and sugars and helps insulin do its job.

As mentioned above, chromium is found in a number of foods, including some meats, fish, oils, eggs, molasses, whole grains, brewer’s yeast, and a few vegetables like broccoli and carrots.  Given the preponderance of these foods, it would seem deficiency should be rare.

However, research suggests that people with diabetes tend to have low levels of this nutrient. Plus, some people may have difficulty absorbing chromium.

Thanks to a former nutrition scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we now know that chromium is better absorbed when combined with picolinate, a substance naturally produced in the body during metabolism of certain amino acids.

Taken together as one supplement, chromium picolinate appears to be far better absorbed by the body than plain old chromium.

But how does it benefit health?

A Sweet Solution…

Hands down, chromium picolinate shows the most promise for improving blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.  A deficiency in chromium can trigger insulin resistance, eventually leading to type 2 diabetes – but taking chromium supplementally may help protect against this effect.1

For example, in one study researchers gave 37 people with type 2 diabetes either 1,000 mcg of chromium picolinate or a placebo pill daily, in addition to sulfonylurea, an anti-diabetes drug.  After 6 months, they found that people who supplemented with chromium had significantly improved insulin sensitivity and glucose (blood sugar) control, compared to those who took a placebo.2

In another study of 50 men and women with type 2 diabetes and 50 healthy controls, researchers determined that people with diabetes appear to have lower levels of chromium than the general population – but supplementing with 200 mcg of the chromium picolonate twice a day for 12 weeks repletes levels and appears to improve glycemic control.

These researchers believe that chromium picolinate may work by increasing the action of insulin, rather than by stimulating its production.3  That means the insulin already in your blood is used more effectively.  If true, this could play a key role in balancing blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.

And yet another study showed that supplemental chromium had significant beneficial effects on HbA1c (a measure of glucose control), as well as glucose, insulin, and cholesterol, in 180 people with type 2 diabetes. The dose of chromium picolinate used by researchers in this trial was 1,000 mcg a day.4

Chromium and Other Conditions…

It seems fairly clear that chromium picolinate could be useful for people with type 2 diabetes, but what about the rest of us?

Well, there’s not enough good evidence to recommend extra supplementation with this nutrient just yet.

Some studies have shown that chromium might offer benefits for people with heart disease and depression, but the scientific proof just isn’t there right now.5,6,7

Chromium is even being marketed as a safer alternative to steroids for athletes and weightlifters, and it is a popular component of many weight-loss and body-building supplements.  But we simply don’t know enough about its effects for this purpose.  In fact, studies in people haven’t conclusively demonstrated any of these claims.8,9,10

Should You Try Chromium?

Chromium picolinate appears to be generally safe when used for no more than 6 months at doses up to 1,000 mcg a day – supplements of the nutrient haven’t really been studied for longer periods of time.

It is possible to experience side effects from chromium picolinate, even at lower doses: It may cause headaches, insomnia, sleep disturbances, irritability, and mood changes, for example.  And some people may experience cognitive, perceptual, and motor dysfunction at doses as low as 200 to 400 mcg per day of chromium picolinate.

Chronic use of chromium picolinate in high doses might cause significant adverse effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, hemorrhage, anemia, liver dysfunction, and renal failure in some people.

You should avoid chromium supplements if you already have kidney or liver disease, have an allergy to chromium or leather, or have depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia, as it may make these conditions worse.

If you have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, this supplement may be an excellent addition to your current treatment program. The recommended dose is 200 to 1,000 mcg daily in divided doses.  If you also take levothyroxine to treat thyroid disorders, take this medication 30 minutes before or 3 to 4 hours after chromium, as they can interact with each other.

It’s also a good idea to check with your doctor before taking chromium picolinate if you also take anti-diabetes medications or use insulin, since chromium may lower blood sugar to dangerous levels when added to these drugs.  You’ll also want to monitor your blood sugar closely to track the supplement’s effects.

If you don’t have type 2 diabetes, it probably isn’t worth taking supplemental chromium picolinate. The evidence doesn’t bear out the purported muscle gain or fat loss claims of the bodybuilding enthusiasts. And it’s too early to tell if it’s an effective treatment for cardiovascular conditions or other chronic ailments.

And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.

References

1http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com/nd/Search.aspx?cs=NONMP&s=ND&pt=100&id=932&fs=ND&searchid=42403889

2Martin J, Wang ZQ, Zhang XH, et al. Chromium picolinate supplementation attenuates body weight gain and increases insulin sensitivity in subjects with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2006 Aug;29(8):1826-32.

3Ghosh D, Bhattacharya B, Mukherjee B, et al. Role of chromium supplementation in Indians with type 2 diabetes mellitus. J Nutr Biochem. 2002 Nov;13(11):690-697.

4Anderson RA, Cheng N, Bryden NA, et al. Elevated intakes of supplemental chromium improve glucose and insulin variables in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes. 1997 Nov;46(11):1786-91.

5Davidson JR, Abraham K, Connor KM, et al. Effectiveness of chromium in atypical depression: a placebo-controlled trial. Biol Psychiatry. 2003 Feb 1;53(3):261-4.

6Lee NA, Reasner CA. Beneficial effect of chromium supplementation on serum triglyceride levels in NIDDM. Diabetes Care. 1994 Dec;17(12):1449-52.

7Press RI, Geller J, Evans GW. The effect of chromium picolinate on serum cholesterol and apolipoprotein fractions in human subjects. West J Med. 1990 Jan;152(1):41-5.

8Yazaki Y, Faridi Z, Ma Y, et al. A pilot study of chromium picolinate for weight loss. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Mar;16(3):291-9.

9Lukaski HC, Siders WA, Penland JG. Chromium picolinate supplementation in women: effects on body weight, composition, and iron status. Nutrition. 2007 Mar;23(3):187-95.

10Livolsi JM, Adams GM, Laguna PL. The effect of chromium picolinate on muscular strength and body composition in women athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 May;15(2):161-6.

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