Safe and Well Tolerated
But what about safety and tolerability? According to Dr. Anderson, “chromium is much safer than just about anything we [put] into our bodies.” Putting his money where his mouth is, Dr. Anderson takes 200 mcg of supplemental chromium every day, plus the amount present in his daily multivitamin. “If I had diabetes, I’d take 200 mcg at least two or three times daily,” he adds.
In light of research by Dr. Anderson and other scientists, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Board revised the dietary reference intake (formerly the recommended dietary allowance, or RDA) for chromium in 2001. Noting that there have never been any reported adverse effects from high dosages of chromium, the board declined to establish a tolerable upper intake level for chromium. By default, the government has acknowledged that there is no known dose of supplemental chromium that is too high to be safe.
The dietary reference intake level of chromium currently is 35 mcg per day for adult men and 25 mcg per day for adult women. Because pregnancy and lactation are known to deplete chromium stores, taking 30 mcg daily is recommended for pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding should take at least 45 mcg daily. Dr. Anderson postulates that doses well above these recommended minimum levels may be necessary to treat chronic diseases. Citing a study conducted in China, he notes that patients there received up to 1,000 mcg of chromium per day, a dose that proved “highly effective” in relieving many of the symptoms of type II diabetes.36
Reiterating his conviction that chromium supplementation is safe, Dr. Anderson says, “Chromium is one of the safest nutrients we have.” As further proof, he points to the new government-issued guidelines for chromium consumption. “There’s no upper limit for chromium. At the highest levels tested there’s no toxicity . . . it’s safer than water.” That may sound like hyperbole, but there is an empirical basis for this claim. As Dr. Anderson notes, there is no discernible toxicity when one consumes 100 times the dietary reference intake of chromium. By contrast, consuming 100 times the daily requirement for water, were it physically possible to do so, would certainly be toxic.
Chromium may be responsible for yet more beneficial effects within the body. A decade ago, one scientist postulated that aging is associated with a decrease in insulin activity in the brain. This hypothesis presumes that by improving insulin’s effectiveness, the hypothalamus, an important control center within the brain, should remain in a “more functionally youthful state.”59 Chromium supplementation, it was noted, might well rejuvenate the hypothalamus of older individuals.
More recently, other researchers have proposed that chromium may have an antidepressant-like effect. Scientists at the Oxford University in England recently demonstrated in laboratory animals that supplemental chromium enhances the activity of neurochemicals associated with mood control. They believe that chromium facilitates the transport of certain amino acids within the brain and central nervous system. Further research into this intriguing effect is pending.60
Niacin Reinforces Positive Effects
In addition to reducing high blood sugar, elevating low blood sugar, decreasing dependence on supplemental insulin, and aiding in weight loss and muscle building, chromium supplementation may also play an important role in lowering high blood pressure and preventing heart disease. These effects are especially dramatic when niacin is taken along with chromium. Niacin, or vitamin B3, tends to reinforce chromium’s beneficial effects, especially on the lipid profile.37-50
Physicians have known for years that lowering so-called “bad” LDL cholesterol is of paramount importance if one is to avoid heart disease risk. Cholesterol is manufactured by the body and is a necessary and natural component of cell membranes and steroid hormones. It is also present in some foods we consume. But excess cholesterol promotes atherosclerosis, whether it is a genetically determined consequence of cholesterol overproduction by the liver or the result of dietary overindulgence. And atherosclerosis generally yields disastrous health consequences, ranging from heart attacks to stroke.
In 2001, the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) issued NCEP-III, a series of new guidelines for the aggressive management of cholesterol and triglycerides.51 NCEP-III is a clarion call for doctors to treat elevated LDL and triglycerides more aggressively, with prescriptions for diet, exercise, and drug therapy. One of the more striking features of NCEP-III is its reclassification of the status of HDL (high-density lipoprotein). HDL is beneficial because it acts to transport cholesterol out of the arteries and back to the liver where it can be cleared from the body.52 NCEP-III raised the limit at which a person’s HDL is to be considered too low. In effect, NCEP-III placed new emphasis on the importance not only of lowering total cholesterol and LDL, but also of raising HDL.51 Physicians are slowly recognizing that low HDL may be just as unhealthy as high LDL.
The good news is that niacin and chromium both raise levels of “good” HDL while lowering “bad” LDL and triglyceride levels. Niacin alone may raise HDL by as much as 15% while lowering total cholesterol and triglycerides by up to 20% and 40%, respectively.53 While doctors have known this for more than 30 years, some have resisted prescribing therapeutic doses of niacin, probably because of side effects caused by early forms of the vitamin. Some patients have experienced flushing of the face and neck or other side effects from high-dose niacin therapy. But dosing and formulation changes have provided a form of niacin that is both effective and well tolerated.40-42, 47
In fact, the simple nutrient niacin is so good at improving one’s lipid profile that it inspired one researcher to declare: “[Niacin] is the most effective agent available for increasing HDL levels while lowering levels of LDL and triglycerides, and improving other lipid risk factors such as lipoprotein(a).”42 Expensive statin drugs are most commonly prescribed to treat lipid imbalances, but physicians are beginning to recognize that niacin is one of the most effective, inexpensive treatments available for lipid therapy.44,48,49
Some researchers have expressed concern that supplemental chromium may increase oxidative stress among diabetics. But at least one research team found the opposite effect among patients with high levels of HbA(1C), a reliable indicator of chronic hyperglycemia.11 In any event, it has also been shown that simple antioxidants such as resveratrol, which is derived from plant sources, readily neutralize the kinds of excess free radicals presumed to be caused by high-dose chromium supplementation.54-58
Chromium clearly plays an important role in normal carbohydrate and lipid metabolism. It is equally clear that many millions of people are likely to be deficient in this essential micronutrient, and would therefore benefit by adding supplemental chromium to their daily diet.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study presented on June 2, 2004, at a conference of the National Institutes of Mental Health New Drug Evaluation Unit found that supplementation with chromium picolinate decreased carbohydrate cravings in people with atypical depression. Atypical depression is a frequently undiagnosed type of depression characterized by carbohydrate cravings, mood swings, and weight gain, among other symptoms.
One hundred thirteen atypical depression sufferers at several centers received 400 micrograms of chromium for two weeks, followed by four weeks of 600 micrograms of chromium or a placebo. Individuals who reported the highest level of carbohydrate craving experienced the greatest reduction in symptoms. They found that carbohydrate cravings were significantly reduced among those who received chromium. Mood swings and fatigue were improved among the chromium takers as well.
Researchers have hypothesized that chromium's role in insulin function may be its link with carbohydrate cravings and atypical depression. Insulin's effect on metabolic function may improve brain serotonin levels that, when low, are associated with carbohydrate cravings and depression. Carbohydrate consumption may be an attempt to stimulate insulin, which elevates brain serotonin levels. Chromium, however, increases the body's insulin response, which may fight carbohydrate craving and depression.