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How does chromium affect people with diabetes?

Emilia Klapp
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Studies show that for the body to metabolize glucose properly, it needs a small amount of chromium. Chromium enhances insulin by improving the ability of cell receptors to respond to insulin and improving the transportation of glucose into the cells for energy. A chromium deficiency can prevent the body from properly using glucose and responding to insulin, leading to fatigue, overweight, increased appetite, excess thirst and frequent urination. This is why foods high in chromium particularly are important for diabetics. Chromium also is an essential nutrient for the eyes. Low chromium levels also increase the risk of developing cataracts.

Health-food gurus advocate chromium, usually in the form of chromium picolinate, for the treatment of hypoglycemia and diabetes. However, this doesn’t mean you need to supplement with this mineral. Having proper levels of chromium in your body is necessary to metabolize blood sugar, and most of the benefits associated with chromium are tied to proper glucose metabolism. Doctors sometimes advise people with type II diabetes to take chromium to boost insulin tolerance. However, even if you have diabetes, you should not take chromium or any drug without first consulting your doctor.

According to the American Diabetes Association and multiple journal articles, research on chromium as a dietary supplement is lacking. We do know that chromium deficiency does severely affect insulin metabolism; however, eating a balanced diet will provide most people a sufficient amount of chromium. Eating a balanced diet and discussing diabetes with your primary care is the first place to start.

Chromium is one of the most common elements in the earth's crust and seawater. It exists in our environment in three different forms: as metallic chromium, as trivalent chromium (Cr 3), and as hexavalent chromium (Cr 6). The most common naturally occurring form is trivalent chromium, which is found in many foods (including egg yolks, brewer's yeast, wheat bran and nuts) and is an essential nutrient with very low toxicity.

The role of chromium in maintaining blood sugar levels was first identified in 1957 by a research scientist named Walter Mertz, who discovered a naturally occurring substance in brewer's yeast that lowered blood glucose levels in experimental animals. He called this substance glucose tolerance factor (GTF). GTF turned out to be a biologically active form of trivalent chromium complexed with several other nutrients, including the amino acids glutamic acid, cysteine and glycine (now called chromodulin).

Chromium is the most important constituent of GTF. GTF amplifies the action of insulin at the insulin receptor on the cell surface, which promotes movement of glucose into cells where it can be used as an energy source.

Chromium is involved in the metabolism of nucleic acids, the building blocks of DNA in every cell. Additionally, chromium is also thought to participate in cholesterol metabolism and may therefore play a role in normalizing blood cholesterol levels. Much evidence suggests that chromium helps maintain normal blood sugar and insulin levels and also supports normal cholesterol levels.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.