Metallic chromium is shiny and doesn't rust, hence its use in decorative metal and automobile trim. Trivalent chromium, with three available electrons, is a different form of chromium present in food and most often combined with oxalate, phytate, picolinate or glycine. In our body the most important form is GTF chromium, the glucose tolerance factor, in which it is bound to niacin and glutathione.
It has been known since the mid-19th century that brewers yeast is good for diabetes but it was not until 1959 that Drs. Klaus Schwartz and Walter Mertz, senior researchers at the US Department of Agriculture, proved that chromium is the active principle. They were able to induce diabetes in laboratory rats by feeding low chromium torula yeast. Brewer's yeast, which is high in chromium, reversed the diabetes. Mertz went on to establish that chromium is an essential nutrient, ie. essential to life.
This discovery has profound health implications that are only beginning to be fully appreciated because, as is usual for nutrients, deficiency causes illness, which if recognized and treated can lead to cure. By now it is certain that chromium deficiency causes diseases identical to adult onset diabetes and atherosclerosis. In other words, chromium is a cause of both diabetes and hardening of the arteries, and it should be evaluated by laboratory test of chromium in hair (the best available test) and clinical trial of supplementation with chromium picolinate or GTF chromium.
Dr. Henry Schroeder wrote a memorable review of chromium research and atherosclerosis in his book "Trace Elements and Man" in 1973. I was much influenced by this book in those early days in my career in ortho-molecular medicine and nutrition but I found it hard to believe that our medical authorities would overlook Schroeder's report that: 1) chromium was completely undetectable in aortas of patients dying of atherosclerosis but amongst accident victims it was almost always present; 2) A fourth of Americans past 50 have no detectable chromium in their tissues. In Europe over 98 percent do have chromium; 3) Orientals have 5 times as much chromium as Americans; 4) Wild animals have about 10 times as much chromium as we do; 5) American children have about 5 times as much chromium up to age 18 and then decline sharply to low levels that gradually fall off through adult life.
Schroeder analyzed chromium contents of foods and studied the metabolic losses of chromium in urine and sweat. He concluded: "the typical American diet, with about 60 percent of its calories from refined sugar, refined flour, and fat, most of which is saturated, was apparently designed not only to provide as little chromium as feasible, but to cause depletion of body stores of chromium by not replacing urinary losses...The result is a prevalent disease, in this case, atherosclerosis."
There have been thousands of research papers in the almost 20 years since then and these discoveries have been confirmed many times over. Nevertheless, It appears that about 9 out of 10 American adults are even today suffering from various degrees of deficiency of this essential nutrient. Yet it has received so little recognition that it seems safe to say that it is an epidemic in search of a disease!
Medical text-books today acknowledge that chromium is the mineral component of GTF, glucose tolerance factor, which is required for the link-up between insulin and its receptor at cell membranes. Without GTF, insulin fails to bind to its receptor and thus fails to do its job: sugar fails to be activated by phosphorous and circulates uselessly in the blood; amino acids fail to enter cells; neuro - hormones fail to function in the brain; fats fail to go into storage but instead circulate at high levels in the blood; and kidney tubules fail to reabsorb efficiently thus causing excessive urination to occur. Weight loss, exhaustion and eventual diabetic coma and death occur in severe cases. Milder cases cause compensatory increase in insulin levels, which drives up cholesterol and fats and promotes atherosclerosis, hypertension, obesity, hypoglycemia, cataract, recurrent infection and very likely acts as a growth promoter for cancers.
Drs. Offenbacher and Pi-Sunyer reported in 1980 that two teaspoonfuls per day of brewers yeast was sufficient to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels in two dozen elderly diabetic and normal subjects. Insulin levels also dropped by a third at the same time, indicating greater efficiency of insulin in blood sugar control but preventing the excess insulin that apparently causes excess activation of enzyme and cell activities.
By now we know that chromium supplementation will work this way in about half of elderly patients and that diabetic blood sugar and insulin levels will usually drop by 20 percent and cholesterol by almost as much. For those with cholesterol over 300, chromium therapy produces a drop of 17 percent and for those under 300 a drop of about half as much.
Early in 1990 Dr. R. I. Press reported on the use of chromium picolinate in lowering cholesterol transport protein (apolipoprotein) in humans. Total cholesterol and LDL decreased significantly while apoliproprotein A1, the chief protein of HDL, increased substantially.
Not long ago Dr. Jeoffrey Gordon of San Diego reported his observations on ten high cholesterol patients before and a month after taking 200 mcg chromium picolinate daily. Cholesterol dropped 24 percent from 301 to 229, LDL dropped 27 percent, triglyceride dropped 43 percent, from 158 to 90).
Chromium is emerging as one of the most powerful life extension factors in existence. In the 1960s Dr. Henry Schroeder found that his chromium treated rats set a record for longevity--and their arteries were entirely free of atherosclerotic plaque despite their advanced age. Of the shorter-lived control rats, 20 percent had arterial plaque.
Chromium supplementation has repeatedly reversed atherosclerotic arterial damage. In 1980 Dr. A. Abraham and his colleagues in Jerusalem found that chromium supplements led to actual regression of atherosclerotic plaques in lab animals. This was documented by weighing arteries, plaque and the cholesterol content, all of which were lowered by chromium supplementation.
However the medical world seems not to have noticed that the positive results from chromium treatment compare favorably to the also impressive results of an ultra-low fat, high complex carbohydrate diet, as promoted by Nathan Pritikin or more recently by Dr. Dean Ornish. You can bet on it: someone will eventually report on a study of chromium therapy for atherosclerosis in humans that will document regression of plaque.
For those of you who are zealous about the low fat diet as the key to longevity by protection from atherosclerosis, it may come as a surprise that chromium, a trace mineral present in tiny microgram amounts in the diet controls blood cholesterol up to 40 percent and blood sugar even more! One of my friends has been puzzled by an almost 100 point rise in his blood cholesterol to a rather alarming 260 mg after he went on a vegetarian diet with no meat, fish, fowl or eggs and no dairy other than parmesan cheese. He eats few nuts or seeds. Diagnosis: a chromium deficient diet aggravated by phytic acid blockade from the parmesan cheese (American cheese is the only cheese known to be a good source of chromium)!
Fitness and athletic performance are now an area of intense interest in chromium research. Dr. Gary Evans supplied chromium picolinate to a group of weight lifters and compared their progress in 40 days to a placebo control group. The chromium did make a difference: lean body mass increased 3.5 pounds after chromium, about 40 times more than the two ounce gained by those on placebo. At this point it is certain that weight lifters are in the avant-garde of the orthomolecular movement. It is sad, however, to think that they must usually go it alone, as human guinea pigs, without real scientific monitoring or medical guidance.
If you have high cholesterol, low HDL and blood sugar disturbance, It is wise to ask for testing of chromium in your hair. Despite the controversy about this method of diagnosis, the medical literature is very favorable. Dr. G. Saner and his group in 1984 found a direct correlation between hair and urinary chromium in a group of 34 tannery workers who used chromium on the job. If you cannot obtain a hair test, a month long trial at 200 mcg per day of GTF chromium, chromium polynicotinate or chromium picolinate is certainly a good idea. Then re-test your blood for possible improvement in cholesterol and triglycerides.
Drs. Anderson and Bryden have recently shown that foods that stimulate insulin also cause increased urinary losses of chromium. Fructose and glucose were the worst offenders in their study. As an aside, I might add that Dr. Linus Pauling reviewed the role of sugars in atherosclerosis 15 years ago and concluded that fructose was the strongest dietary cause. In the light of this new knowledge about chromium loss, this begins to make sense!
In a similar fashion, milk, cottage cheese, corn, millet and other foods high in the amino acid, leucine, which stimulates insulin release, might also deplete chromium. In fact it is ominous to consider the present emphasis on calcium supplementation, since it is now known that calcium carbonate not only blocks chromium absorption but also lowers tissue levels.
Can you obtain adequate chromium in your food? The answer is yes if you are willing to eat a teaspoon of brewers yeast regularly. Next in order are: oysters, egg yolk, liver, kidney, nuts, wheat germ and American Cheese! Wait until Herb Caen hears about this new key to longevity. At his age he may have to give in and try it. Velveeta may yet have the last laugh on its chief satirist.
©2010 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.