How do you feel, physically, compared to 10 years ago? Better? Worse? The same? If you're past your 20s and in the "better" or "same" category, that's good. If you're a few decades older and those are still your answers, that's even better. Chromium can help you maintain that healthy trend.
"When you take chromium, you're probably reducing fasting glucose levels and, at the same time, insulin levels, and that's very important for your long-term health," says Harry Preuss, MD, a professor at Georgetown University who has studied chromium for several decades.
We know that elevated levels of blood sugar can lead to diabetes, but, explains Preuss, they do much more. In fact, he says, blood sugar is a more reliable marker of risk for heart disease and other age-related decline than cholesterol, blood pressure, and other more familiar risk factors, because high blood sugar underlies these other signs. The tendency to gain weight as we get older is another common symptom, but it can be reversed. Although eating and exercise habits play a pivotal role, they aren't enough for many people, and that's where chromium can be a very useful tool.
The Weight Gain Trigger
"I can't eat like I used to." Most of us heard our parents or grandparents say that, and we may be saying it ourselves. And there's a basic physiological reason why.
Sugars and starches are the drivers of blood sugar. When it goes up, the human body produces insulin to enable the blood sugar to be used as energy. The longer we live, the less efficient this basic mechanism becomes, because our sensitivity to insulin declines, creating "insulin resistance." To compensate, our bodies produce even more insulin, and these higher levels of insulin increase fat storage.
Consequently, eating the same food at age 40 as you did at age 20-even if you were just as physically active (which most people aren't)-is likely to produce weight gain.
Eating less to lose weight will drop pounds on a scale, but much of that loss is likely to be muscle, which adds to the problem. "Chromium is helpful," says Preuss, "because it switches your metabolism so that the weight
you lose is fat, not muscle."
Preuss emphasizes, however, that chromium isn't a magic diet pill. Rather, by improving the metabolism of carbohydrates, it tempers rises in blood sugar and insulin release, and over a period of weeks or months, will make a beneficial difference.
Lab, animal, and human studies have shown that chromium has a beneficial effect on blood sugar. For example, a review of 15 studies, published in the journal Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics, found that chromium reduced chronically high levels of blood sugar, as well as spikes after meals. Altogether, there were more than 1,600 people with diabetes in these trials, all of which tested chromium picolinate, a specific form of the supplement.
In hospital patients who were being fed intravenously, low chromium levels produced symptoms of diabetes, and when chromium was added to their nutritional formula, symptoms disappeared. As a result, chromium is now routinely added to intravenous feeding solutions.
In another study, published in Nutrition Journal, Preuss and his colleagues tested the effect of chromium when healthy people drank a sugar solution. The supplement significantly reduced increases in both blood sugar and insulin levels.
Who Needs More Chromium?
There is no standardized test for measuring chromium levels, but one study, published in the journal Metabolism, reported on hair, sweat, and blood samples from more than 40,000 people. It found that chromium levels are more likely to be low among older people. A high-sugar diet, infection, intense exercise, physical trauma, pregnancy, lactation, and stress can also deplete chromium levels.
Additionally, drugs that reduce stomach acid increase excretion of chromium and reduce its absorption. These include antacids, heartburn drugs, and corticosteroids. Other drugs may increase absorption of chromium, or chromium may increase absorption of the drug. These include beta-blockers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and insulin.
Finally, if you take prescription drugs for diabetes, your dosage may need to be adjusted as chromium improves your blood sugar levels. Consult a nutritionally savvy physician before beginning a supplement regimen.
How to Use Chromium
Preuss recommends taking 200 mcg daily, but cautions that not all forms are equally bioavailable. Chromium chloride, in particular, is not well absorbed. Forms that have been designed for good absorption, and have been studied, include chromium picolinate, chromium polynicotinate, chromium histidinate, chromium dinicocysteinate (Zychrome on labels), and chromium chelavite. Some supplements contain more than one form of chromium.