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How Chromium Deficiency Affects Our Metabolism

by 
 
Medically reviewed by 
Dr.
Jessica Christie
 
ND, CNS
How Chromium Deficiency Affects Our Metabolism

Chromium is a crucial mineral involved in insulin's regulation of blood sugar levels. Insulin converts sugar, carbohydrates, and other food into energy the body needs for daily activities.

A small percentage of people suffer from chromium deficiency, despite 90% of American diets lacking sufficient chromium. Those most at risk of deficiency include elderly individuals, heavy exercisers, those who consume a lot of sugar, and pregnant women. Low chromium levels can lead to increased blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol, increasing the likelihood of developing diabetes and heart disease.

Supplementing with chromium may aid individuals with diabetes in managing their blood sugar levels, as they either do not produce enough insulin or are unable to effectively use it, causing glucose to accumulate in the bloodstream.

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What is Chromium?

Chromium is a trace element found in many foods and as a dietary supplement in its trivalent (+3) form. However, hexavalent (+6) chromium is a by-product of certain manufacturing processes and is toxic.

Trivalent chromium may help regulate blood sugar levels by enhancing insulin's efficacy. Chromium is often used to treat chromium deficiency and is claimed to have benefits for conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and polycystic ovary syndrome, among others.

Studies have suggested that chromium may impact carbohydrate, lipid, and protein metabolism by enhancing insulin action. The exact mechanism for this activity is unknown.

In 2001, chromium was considered to be an essential nutrient, according to the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB). This was due to its effects on insulin action. However, recent research has shown that although chromium may have benefits at pharmacological levels, it is not essential since a deficiency does not cause abnormalities that can be reversed by adding chromium. A scientific panel concluded that there is no evidence to support chromium as an essential nutrient.

Most of the chromium in the blood is bound to plasma proteins, with only about 5% being unbound. Chromium is mainly stored in the liver, spleen, soft tissue, and bone. Chromium is excreted primarily through the urine, but urinary chromium levels are not a good indicator of chromium stores. Some studies have measured chromium levels in sweat, serum, hair, and toenails, but there is no validated method for determining chromium status or a clinically defined chromium deficiency state.

What are Chromium's Health Benefits?

There are five conditions where chromium could potentially have positive effects:

Impaired glucose tolerance and diabetes: Low levels of chromium have been linked to type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance contributes to cardiovascular disease and is present in conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and gestational diabetes. Chromium has been shown to enhance insulin's metabolic effect and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, especially in overweight individuals.

Metabolic syndrome: This refers to a group of risk factors, including abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, hypertension, and elevated fasting blood glucose, that increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. A study of 3,648 adults found lower baseline chromium concentrations in toenails were associated with a higher incidence of metabolic syndrome over 23 years. Therefore, it is believed that chromium supplements may be beneficial for people with metabolic syndrome. Evidence shows that chromium picolinate supplementation appears to contribute to the improvement of metabolic control and health.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): PCOS is a hormonal disorder affecting the ovaries and is the most common among women of reproductive age, with an estimated 15-20% of women having the condition. PCOS is often underdiagnosed, and many women suffering from its symptoms may not know that it can be effectively treated through a functional medicine approach. PCOS patients are usually deficient in vitamins B, D, E, and K and minerals like selenium, chromium, and zinc. A study showed that PCOS patients who received chromium supplementation showed a significant decrease in body mass index, free testosterone levels, and fasting insulin levels.

Dyslipidemia: Dyslipidemia is a disorder with unequal distribution of lipids such as cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), triglycerides, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Studies have linked low chromium levels to elevated blood cholesterol levels. As a result, it is believed that chromium supplementation may help regulate blood lipid levels. This hypothesis has been tested in various populations, including individuals with impaired glucose tolerance, diabetes, and PCOS. Meta-analyses of chromium supplementation in individuals with diabetes and PCOS have shown no significant changes in total cholesterol and LDL levels. However, some studies have indicated that chromium supplementation increases HDL cholesterol levels and decreases triglyceride levels.

Weight and lean body mass: Chromium supplementation has been proposed to enhance weight loss, decrease body fat, and increase muscle mass. This is due to its potential to amplify insulin action, reduce the amount of glucose converted to fat, and increase protein synthesis. Some preliminary research suggests chromium supplements can reduce food intake, hunger, and fat cravings. A meta-analysis found that participants taking chromium supplements lost more weight (and significantly reduced BMI and body fat percentage compared to the placebo group).

How to Test Chromium Levels

Chromium levels are mainly measured in blood and urine. The urine test is primarily used for cases where there is suspicion of poisoning or exposure to toxic hexavalent chromium.

Chromium blood tests are aimed at detecting if there is a deficiency. The analysis can be performed in whole blood or serum. The test results will indicate the amount of chromium present in the blood. They can determine if the individual has enough chromium in their body or if they may have a chromium deficiency. It's important to note that chromium levels can be influenced by diet and age and that a single test may not provide a complete picture of an individual's chromium status.

Also, chromium levels can be analyzed as a part of a Micronutrients Panel, which tests the status of several nutrients, including chromium.

How to Boost Chromium Levels

The NIH has established the following Adequate Intakes (AI) for Chromium according to sex, age, pregnancy, and lactation:

*Note that for infants from birth to 12 months, the AIs are calculated based on the mean chromium intake of infants primarily fed by human milk. While for older infants, complementary foods are considered.

There are different food sources of chromium:

  • Brewer's yeast (especially yeast grown in soil high in chromium)
  • Whole grain bread and cereals
  • Molasses
  • Spices
  • Some bran cereals
  • Organ meats
  • Mushrooms
  • Oatmeal
  • Prunes
  • Nuts
  • Asparagus

There are also different chromium supplements, including:

  • Chromium nicotinate
  • Chromium histidinate
  • Chromium picolinate
  • Chromium-enriched yeast
  • Chromium chloride
  • Glucose Tolerance Factor Chromium (GTF)

Chromium supplements are commonly sold in the form of tablets and capsules and are often a part of multivitamins. Chromium picolinate is the most effective form of chromium supplementation and has been proven safe in numerous animal and human trials.

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Summary

Trivalent chromium is a mineral that plays a role in several physiological processes in the body. Chromium is involved in the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats and helps regulate insulin levels, which can impact overall health in several ways.  

Chromium helps enhance insulin function, which is essential in controlling blood sugar levels, particularly in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Chromium supplementation has been proposed to enhance weight loss, decrease body fat, and increase muscle mass, improving body composition. Some studies suggest chromium supplementation may improve blood lipid levels by reducing triglycerides and increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

The results of studies on chromium supplementation and its effects on health have been mixed, and more research is needed to uncover its impact completely. Additionally, chromium supplementation should not be used as a substitute for a healthy lifestyle and diet, and you should talk to your practitioner before taking chromium supplementation.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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