By: P. Nebergall
According to some reports, chromium picolinate can lower insulin requirements. In fact, some people swear by it, and there are athletes that take more than 800 mcg of the substance every day.
Unfortunately, there remains the question of whether over-the-counter chromium pills are safe. Some researchers affiliated with the FDA fear that taking chromium supplements could increase the risk of cancer.
However, R. Keith Campbell, RPh, CDE, says that chromium is not a panacea. The New York Times recently reported that an FDA study showed chromium did indeed cause chromosome damage in human cells in lab tissue. Critics of the study argue that the results were misleading, since the levels administered in the research were higher than what a person would be exposed to under normal conditions.
Mark F. McCarty, research director of chromium distributor Nutrition 21, says, “The doses associated with chromosome damage were 3,000 times the recommended amount. That’s 60,000 mcg of chromium a day, and I don’t think anyone would want to take that much. Data presented about this in the popular press was totally misleading.”
The recommended daily allowance for chromium is 50-200 mcg per day, but Diane Sterns, a researcher involved in the FDA study, says that chromium accumulates in the body, which means that over time a person could be exposed to such high levels. Chromosome damage has been shown to cause cancer.
Says Campbell, “While no one would say at this point that chromium causes cancer, since it has shown chromosome damage, the risk is possible.”
Dangers of Chromium Deficiency
In a 1993 issue of DIABETES HEALTH, S. Robert King, M.S., a frequent contributor to the newspaper, said, “Chromium deficiency in humans leads to high insulin resistance and then to diabetes.”
However, he cautioned that many studies have shown no improvement in diabetes when chromium supplements are added to the diet. Others show progress when the chromium comes from nutritional yeast.
People with diabetes are deficient in many minerals due to increased urine production and impaired liver function which affects mineral metabolism. Science News reported in 1990 that “diets high in simple sugars, such as glucose and fructose, rob the body of chromium, while those high in complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, preserve it.”
In 1990, Evans also reported in The Western Journal of Medicine that in a small, preliminary study of American Chippewa Indians with type 2 diabetes, fasting blood glucose levels decreased within two weeks of chromium use. After eight weeks, the levels went down about 35% from a mean of 258 mg/dl to a mean of 168 mg/dl.
Evans concluded that while chromium deficiency is not the only cause of type 2 diabetes, “Eighty percent of the subjects responded positively to a daily supplement of chromium within the safe and effective range and the quantity of picolinate amounted to approximately 150,000 mcg. Thus, the action of chromium picolinate is nutritional, not pharmacological, and should be considered as an adjunct in the treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes.”
According to Science News, broccoli, some fruits, beer, and wine contain higher-than-average chromium levels. However, “the body cannot readily absorb all dietary forms of chromium. For example, much of the chromium in potatoes never gets incorporated into the body’s cells.”
Science News concludes, “The best way to enhance the body’s supply is to limit simple sugars, which cause the body to excrete large amounts of the mineral.”
Moderation is the Key
Keith Campbell agrees that chromium is probably safe-in small doses.
The Department of Agriculture estimates that men intake 33 mcg and women 25 mcg of chromium per day in food. According to Campbell, no more than 200 mcg of chromium should be taken daily in order to stay within safe levels. As an adult with diabetes, Campbell said he would not take more than 200 mcg per day. He says, some athletes are taking up to 800 mcg per day-far too much.
C. Leigh Broadhurst, PhD, of the Nutrient Requirements and Functions Laboratory at the Department of Agriculture, said in The Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, “Chromium picolinate is completely safe. No competent researcher would ever recommend that a mineral be taken in a daily dosage of 6,000 times the usual dosage (1,200,000 mcg). If one were to drink 48,000 glasses of water per day instead of eight, it would be toxic.”
A study at the Medical Center Hospital and the Audie Murphy Veterans Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, found that chromium picolinate lowered triglyceride levels 17.4% when chromium- deficient patients took 200 mcg per day. High triglyceride levels are linked to artherosclerotic disease which is responsible for 80% of all deaths in type 2 patients. The researchers reported in the December 1994 issue of Diabetes Care that chromium, which costs less than $10 a month, is worth taking.
True Risks and Benefits
Steven V. Edelman, MD, refuted the San Antonio study’s claim. “Triglyceride levels bounce around a lot, and a change of 17% is not significant. The key to this study is that chromium probably doesn’t help unless the subject is chromium deficient.”
Campbell concludes, “The companies that make chromium and claim its benefits, need to fund the studies that prove these claims. Nobody really knows the exact dosages, or the long term effects of chromium. We don’t know the best source to derive it from, or how significant its benefits really are.”