I last wrote about chromium in 2006. Although more than 10 years have passed, the topic still remains relevant and controversial. If you’ve been taking chromium and you’re convinced that it’s helped your diabetes control (apart from medication, healthy eating, physical activity, weight loss, and potentially any other supplements that you take — yes, you need to consider their effects on your blood sugars, too), then it may make sense to continue taking it as long as you’re taking a safe amount. But all these years later, is there anything new to add about chromium? Is it really helpful in managing blood sugars? Or are the chromium claims mostly hype?
If you’re a newbie to diabetes or diabetes supplements, you may not be familiar with chromium. At first glance, chromium sounds vaguely like it might be related to a chrome bumper or bathroom sink fixture. Close, but not quite. Chrome is a thin layer of a certain form of chromium (hexavalent) that’s applied to a metal object. Hexavalent chromium is toxic and a carcinogen. The form of chromium that is biologically active and found in food is called trivalent chromium.
According to the National Institutes of Health, chromium is known to “enhance the action of insulin.” Way back in 1957, a study done with rats showed that a compound in brewer’s yeast prevented an age-related decline in the rats’ ability to keep their blood sugars at a normal level. A couple of years later, chromium was identified as being the ingredient in the yeast, and was subsequently termed a “glucose tolerance factor.”
Chromium is a trace element, meaning that the body requires extremely small amounts. Thanks to the rats and the brewer’s yeast, researchers discovered that chromium helps the body to maintain a safe blood sugar level by boosting the signaling activity of insulin once insulin binds to cells. This signaling activity helps move glucose from the blood into the cells, thereby lowering the amount of sugar in the blood.
Along with giving insulin a hand in regulating blood sugar levels, chromium also appears to play a role in controlling cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels. The National Academy of Sciences has determined that the “estimated safe and adequate daily dietary intake” of chromium for adults is as follows:
• 35 mcg (micrograms) for males ages 14–50
• 30 mcg for males over the age of 50
• 24 mcg for females 14–18
• 25 mcg for females 19–50
• 20 mcg for females over the age of 50
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and older adults may need extra chromium.
Instances of chromium deficiency have been rare; the exception has been in a few patients who received IV nutrition that didn’t contain chromium for long periods of time. Determining a person’s chromium status is difficult, however, and blood, urine and hair analyses don’t always reflect body stores of chromium.
Foods. Chromium is found naturally in certain foods, including brewer’s yeast, whole-grain foods, bran cereals, broccoli, nuts, and grape juice. Even red wine may contain chromium. How much chromium is in food is somewhat hard to measure, and is dependent upon the amount of chromium in the soil where the food is grown and if any is added during food processing.
Supplements. Chromium is available in supplement form. A common type of supplement is chromium picolinate (picolinate enhances chromium absorption) — this is the form of chromium that most diabetes studies have used. A study from 2011 found that 19% of the U.S. population takes a chromium supplement.
This is the big question, and not surprisingly, there isn’t a definitive answer. Let’s look at some recent research on the topic:
• NHANES data from the years 1999 to 2010, which included almost 29,000 people, revealed that the odds of having Type 2 diabetes was lower in those who took a chromium supplement.
• A meta-analysis published in 2014 looked at 22 studies that involved chromium supplementation. Overall, chromium supplements improved glycemic control — meaning, improved A1C and fasting blood glucose levels when more than 200 mcg were taken daily.
• A four-month study, published in 2015, of 71 patients with poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes taking 600 mcg of chromium daily showed a significant improvement in fasting and postprandial (after-meal) glucose levels, along with an improvement in A1C levels.
• Another meta-analysis, published in 2017, which looked at 28 studies, concluded that chromium supplementation reduced fasting glucose and A1C levels, plus improving triglycerides and HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Obviously, some of the newer chromium research seems favorable towards taking a supplement. But previous studies (including clinical trials) have not yielded the same conclusions. Meta-analyses are interesting, but they’re hardly the same as randomized clinical trials, which is what are needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of chromium in the treatment of diabetes.
What does this mean for you? It may seem appealing to take chromium, based on the above information, as well as anecdotal reports from others. The decision to take a supplement is up to you and should include the input from your doctor. It’s generally not advisable to take a chromium supplement if you have kidney or liver disease, if you’re pregnant, or if you take certain types of medications. For the most part, chromium supplements are safe to take, but don’t go overboard. It’s likely that doses up to 1,000 mcg a day are safe, but again, check first with your doctor.
We likely haven’t heard the last about chromium. You may or may not have a strong opinion on whether it’s helpful for diabetes. And if you believe that chromium is helping your diabetes, that’s great. If you’re still deciding whether to take it or not, here are my suggestions (along with checking with your doctor first):
• Buy a supplement from a reputable company that has their product tested for safety.
• Check your blood sugars regularly and pay close attention to them.
• After, say, a month or so, if you don’t see any improvement in your readings, think about stopping the supplement.
• If you notice any side effects, stop taking the supplement and let your doctor know.
Want to learn more about diabetes and supplements? Read “Dietary Supplements: Hype or Helpful?” and “Choosing a Multivitamin.”
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