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Better Nutrition (1989-90)

Chromium keeps blood sugar in check

Chromium keeps blood sugar in check

Richard P. Huemer

Chromium Keeps Blood Sugar in Check

Biologically active chromium helps stabilize blood sugar and lower cholesterol levels.

Most people think of chromium as a shiny metal that graces the hood of a car. In fact, chromium is one of the essential trace elements and is important for good health. In its metallic form, chromium is quite indigestible. As organic, food-form chromium, it’s indispensable. Although it is needed only in minuscule amounts, most Americans don’t get nearly enough in their daily diets.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for chromium is 50 to 200 micrograms (mcg). However, a recent study from the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center, Beltsville, Md., showed the average diet provides only about half the suggested minimum 50 mcg.

By contrast, people in the Far East, Near East, Europe and Africa have tissue chromium levels ranging from 2.5 to 13 times higher than those of U.S. citizens. Even wild animals — squirrels, rabbits, deer and bears — often have 10 times as much chromium in their tissues as people.

Most of the trace elements essential for our health are necessary for plants as well. Plants extract these nutrients from the soil and concentrate them. Consequently, vegetarian foods are good sources for many trace elements. Chromium, however, is one of the exceptions to this rule, along with iodine and selenium, because plants don’t need them.

The “goiter belt” extended across the Midwest until early this century. Due to the soil’s deficiency in iodine, locally-grown foods lacked this element, which is needed for the normal function of the thyroid gland. Widespread occurrence of goiter, a disfiguring and painful disease of the thyroid gland, was the result. The problem was solved by supplementation: iodine added to table salt provided enough of the essential element to prevent goiter. But because the effects of chromium and selenium deficiencies are more subtle and not as direct, few products are fortified with these minerals.

Even when chromium is present in food, processing can remove up to 80 percent of it. Significant amounts of minerals are lost from whole wheat and raw sugar when they are processed to white flour and refined sugar, two of the biggest constituents of the American diet.

But why is chromium so important, anyway? Chromium helps metabolize carbohydrates to produce energy. The process begins when the digestive enzymes in the mouth and small intestine break down complex carbohydrates into simple sugar molecules, which raise the level of blood glucose.

In order for blood sugar to provide energy, it must be escorted into each of the body’s 70 trillion cells, where the energy conversion takes place. The “escort” is a hormone called insulin. Insulin doesn’t work properly unless biologically active chromium is present as a cofactor.

In a state of chromium deficiency, the body may develop diabetes because glucose builds up in the blood and not enough is transported into the cells. A person in this situation is said to be glucose intolerant. Since biologically active chromium can restore glucose levels to normal, it was named the Glucose Tolerance Factor, or GTF, by its discoverer, Klaus Schwartz, M.D.

Thirty years have passed since the discovery of chromium’s importance, and scientists still do not know the precise chemical structure of GTF. Although GTF cannot yet be defined by what it is, it can be described by what it does. GTF is more assimilable than other forms of chromium and less toxic than other forms in high doses. It improves glucose tolerance, binds to insulin, and crosses the placenta from mother to fetus.

There are several kinds of glucose intolerance. In one type, juvenile diabetes, not enough insulin is available to utilize the blood sugar. Another type is maturity-onset diabetes, in which insulin is present in the body but doesn’t do its job; chromium supplementation may be quite useful in such cases. A third form of intolerance is the high-and-low blood sugar fluctuations of hypoglycemia. Chromium stabilizes the fluctuations of blood sugar that occur after mealtimes.

One of insulin’s functions is to regulate fat metabolism. Chromium, therefore, also may help prevent atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease, the leading cause of death among Americans.

The evidence for a link between chromium deficiency and coronary artery disease is very strong. Chromium deficiency causes elevated serum cholesterol. Administration of biologically active chromium significantly lowered subjects’ cholesterol in clinical studies; at the same time, HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”) increased. In one recent study, levels of the harmful apolipoprotein B (APO B) dropped dramatically. Many cardiologists consider APO B a strong predictor of coronary artery disease.

In two separate studies, coronary arteries were found to clear of plaque when blood chromium exceeded about 6 mcg per liter, leading scientists to propose that the blood chromium level be used as a diagnostic test: above 6 mcg, coronary artery disease would be ruled out as highly unlikely. In other research, done with rabbits, chromium supplementation actually reversed atherosclerosis.

Chromium’s effectiveness is determined by its biological activity. GTF is biologically active and healthy people can make it from the chromium in foods. One of the best food sources of GTF is yeast. Apparently, yeast cells can manufacture GTF much as human cells do.

Apart from yeast, relatively few foods provide much chromium. Some of the better sources are clams, corn oil and grains. Unfortunately some people are allergic to yeast or have been placed on yeast-free diets for medical reasons. These individuals cannot take high-chromium yeast as a supplement and must look for other sources.

Until recently, the alternatives were limited. Inorganic chromium (chromic chloride) was sold, but the Food and Drug Administration has pointed out that, because of its low activity, “there is not rationale to support is use as a dietary supplement.” Now, picolinate-form minerals have been developed under U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsorship, and are available in health food stores.

Chromium picolinate is an organic compound comprised of chromium and picolinic acid. Picolinic acid is quite similar to vitamin B3 (niacin), and like niacin it can be made in the human body from an essential amino acid. The available evidence on this new form of chromium indicates high biological activity in human beings. Picolinic acid also is found in brewer’s yeast.

With our increasing knowledge of chromium’s role in vital functions and the current availability of active chromium supplements that even allergic people can use, chromium need no longer remain a sleeping giant. The epidemic of coronary artery disease and the prevalence of maturity-onset diabetes are becoming a national problem. Likewise, the widespread deficiency of an essential trace element is frightening, especially when that element, chromium, can have an impact on these killer diseases.

Richard P. Huemer is a pioneer in the field of metabolic nutrition and orthomolecular medicine. He has written for many health magazines and edited three health books. He currently maintains a private practice in Westlake Village, Calif.

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