What Is Chromium? Benefits and Risks

Chromium supplements advertise many benefits, but not all are proven

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Chromium is a mineral that is found in certain foods and in the environment. There are two known forms: trivalent (chromium 3+) and hexavalent (chromium 6+). The trivalent form is found in foods (and will be the focus here). Hexavalent chromium, which is toxic, is found in industrial pollution.

In supplements, chromium is available in multiple forms, including:

  • Chromium chloride
  • Chromium citrate
  • Chromium nicotinate
  • Chromium picolinate
  • High-chromium yeast

It is not known which form is most effective in the human body, but chromium chloride, in particular, has poor bioavailability. This means it is not broken down and absorbed by the body very well.

This article explains that many people take chromium to control blood sugar with diabetes, provide relief from metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome, control weight, and enhance muscle mass. It also lists the recommended daily dosages.

Foods that contain chromium
Verywell / JR Bee  

What Chromium Is Used For

Researchers do not fully understand what chromium does in the body, but the mineral might help the body break down and absorb carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Chromium is found in many foods, but the exact amount can be difficult to determine, especially when you consider that chromium can be accidentally added to food when it is prepared with stainless steel equipment. Common foods and drinks with chromium include:

  • Apples and bananas
  • Beef
  • Brewer’s yeast (used to make beer and which may increase enzymes in the stomach)
  • Broccoli, green beans, and potatoes
  • Coffee
  • Fish
  • High-fiber bran cereals
  • Poultry, egg yolks
  • Whole grains

Chromium supplements are often used to control blood sugar with diabetes, provide relief from metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome, control weight, and enhance muscle mass. But the research supporting these uses is underwhelming.

It is also difficult to determine if a person is deficient in chromium and whether supplements are useful. Many studies on chromium supplements have been inconclusive. It doesn't help that different forms and doses of chromium have been used in these studies.

Chromium Makes a Splash

Chromium is present in food, though in very small amounts. By contrast, seawater and the earth's crust contain an abundance of chromium.

Type 2 Diabetes

You may have seen some chromium supplements advertise that they can improve blood sugar control in people who have type 2 diabetes. But studies that examine how chromium affects high blood sugar levels or diabetes have produced mixed results.

The American Diabetes Association does not recommend chromium supplements for people with diabetes. More research is needed, the association says, to understand whether chromium supplements might improve blood sugar control in some people.

ADA Takes a Stand

“At the present, benefit from chromium supplementation in persons with diabetes has not been conclusively demonstrated," the association says.

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. You must have at least three metabolic risk factors to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome:

Several clinical trials have focused on the relationship between chromium supplements and metabolic syndrome. These trials did not show the benefit of taking chromium supplements to help treat metabolic syndrome.

Putting First Things First

Before prescribing medication, many healthcare providers suggest that people with metabolic syndrome make heart-healthy lifestyle changes first.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that can make it difficult for females to conceive a baby. The symptoms include irregular periods, acne, excess hair on the face or body, and weight gain. PCOS also increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Studies on the benefits of taking chromium supplements for PCOS have produced mixed results, with any potential benefits appearing minimal. Researchers say that more study is needed to determine if chromium might help lower the risk of PCOS or at least improve the symptoms.

Weight Loss and Muscle Mass Improvement

Some chromium supplements are marketed on the appealing idea that taking them will result in weight loss, less body fat, and greater muscle mass—largely based on the theory that regulated blood sugar will result in reduced cravings.

However, clinical trials have discovered that chromium produces very small benefits in these regards.

Said one study: "Chromium is only a small part of the puzzle in the control of weight loss and body composition, and its effects, if present, will be small compared with those of exercise and a well-balanced diet."

Possible Side Effects

There are few known side effects of chromium supplements. There does not appear to be any concern for serious side effects in reasonable doses.

However, there have been isolated reports of negative side effects when chromium is taken in large doses. Diarrhea, headaches, hives, and vertigo, have been shown to occur when the supplement is taken in doses of between 1,200 and 2,400 micrograms (mcg) daily for four months.

What Is Vertigo?

Vertigo is defined as "the false sensation that either oneself or the surroundings are moving or rotating."

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Chromium (and particularly chromium chloride) is included in many baby formulas. It is not considered to be harmful in normal doses, but talk to your healthcare provider for advice before taking a chromium supplement if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Breast Milk Contains Chromium

Human milk contains about 0.25 mcg/L of chromium. But the value can vary widely.

Medication Interactions

Certain medications may affect the absorption of chromium in the body or enhance excretion (meaning your body will get rid of more of it). These include:

  • Antacids
  • Corticosteroids
  • H2 blockers (cimetidine, famotidine, and nizatidine)
  • Protein pump inhibitors (omeprazole, lansoprazole, rabeprazole, pantoprazole, and esomeprazole)

Other medications may have their effects enhanced by taking chromium. These include:

  • Beta-blockers
  • Corticosteroids
  • Insulin
  • Nicotinic acid
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Prostaglandin inhibitors

How Much Chromium You Need

It shouldn't come as a surprise that researchers have not gathered enough data so that a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for chromium can be established. However, an adequate intake (AI)—a step-down measure—may help:

  • For men ages 19 to 50: 35 mcg daily
  • For women ages 19 to 50: 25 mcg daily
  • Men and women older than 50: 30 and 20 mcg daily, respectively
  • For pregnant and lactating individuals: 30 and 45 mcg daily

If you're trying to cobble together a chromium-rich diet plan, consult a list of foods and their respective chromium content with this helpful guide.

Better Than No Info at All

Nutritionists at the United States of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Board set an AI when they don't have enough information to determine an RDA.

What to Look For

There are many types of chromium supplements on the market. They may be available individually or as part of a combination product that includes other vitamins or minerals. When you're looking at a product, be sure to note how many micrograms of chromium are in the recommended dose.

If a supplement contains multiple minerals, vitamins, or other ingredients, be sure to research them so you understand what you're taking and how they could affect you.

USDA Ignores Supplements

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements, meaning that it does not verify that they contain what they say they do. Other parties have stepped into this role, including ConsumerLab.com, NSF International, and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). The latest addition is UL, a for-profit company known for testing electronics. USP sets what experts at Consumer Reports say are the most widely accepted standards for supplements.

Summary

Researchers do not fully understand what chromium does, but the mineral might help the body break down and absorb carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Chromium supplements are often used to control blood sugar with diabetes, provide relief from metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovary syndrome, control weight, and enhance muscle mass.

More research is needed to provide support for these uses. But taken in reasonable doses, chromium does not appear to pose any harm, either.

A Word From Verywell

It's often said that "marketing is way ahead of science" when it comes to supplements. In other words, the purported and advertised benefits stand far ahead of the research. So what's the holdup with the research?

The American Diabetes Association says that "most clinical studies have major limitations, including small size, short-term, nonrandomized design, and different doses of chromium supplementation, which may explain why findings vary so much across studies. Therefore, more clinical trials are needed in the U.S. population to examine the robustness of the results observed in other populations and appropriate doses."

While taking chromium supplements benefits some people, the practice may not do the same for you. As always, confer with your healthcare provider before starting a supplement regimen. Supplements can interact with medication, even when they're taken at a "proper" dosage level. Your provider can give you an important heads-up about any risks.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does chromium do in the body?

    Chromium appears to play a role in carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism by boosting the effect of insulin. Researchers aren't exactly sure how chromium works but suspect it binds to insulin receptors helping insulin work more efficiently.

  • Is it healthy to take chromium supplements?

    Most Americans get enough chromium in their diet that they do not need to supplement. However, it is safe to supplement provided you don't overdo it. Research suggests high doses can hinder insulin effectiveness and cause itching, flushing, and stomach irritation. Liver problems, irregular heart rhythms, and kidney damage have also been reported. 

  • What are the signs of chromium deficiency?

    Chromium deficiency is rarely seen in generally healthy people. Symptoms of chromium deficiency have not been established, but studies suggest it can cause high blood sugar, unexplained weight loss, peripheral neuropathy, and confusion. 

  • Can chromium help you lose weight?

    In theory, chromium stimulates weight loss by helping manage blood sugar levels, which reduces cravings. However, it’s unclear if chromium actually promotes weight loss. A published review of studies found there is not enough reliable evidence to support the use of chromium for this purpose.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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