The Health Benefits of Chromium Picolinate

Side Effects May Outweigh Benefits for Most Users

Watchglass holds two grams of "Chromax II" pure chromium picolinate powder from NUTRITION 21, originally supplied to be used in a rodent feeding experiment in 1993. The substance is a reddish crystalline powder, very sparingly soluble in water. It is 12.5% chromium (III) by weight.
Sbharris/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Chromium is a mineral that humans require in trace amounts. It's found in small quantities in foods such as brewer's yeast, calf liver, whole grains, processed meats, and cheese.

In 1959, chromium was first identified as an element that enables the hormone insulin to function properly. Since then, chromium has been studied for diabetes and has become a popular dietary supplement. It is widely available in health food stores, drug stores and online.

Health Benefits

Chromium is believed to help the body process carbohydrates and fats. It is marketed as a weight loss aid for dieters and an ergogenic (muscle-building) aid for bodybuilders and athletes. One form, chromium picolinate, is popular because it is one of the more easily absorbed forms.

Research on the benefits of chromium to enhance fat loss and increase performance in bodybuilders and athletes has provided mixed results. According to the Natural Medicines Database, "early evidence that shows that taking chromium while participating in resistance training can increase weight loss, body fat loss, and lean body mass. However, most reliable research shows that taking chromium by mouth does not enhance bodybuilding, strength, or lean body mass."

Chromium picolinate is also used in the treatment of diabetes and depression. However, more studies are needed to fully understand the relationship between chromium and these conditions. Research is ongoing.

Other uses for chromium picolinate include the prevention or treatment of:

  • Age-related mental decline
  • High blood sugar in HIV patients
  • Low blood sugar
  • High blood cholesterol caused by medication
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Heart attacks
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Turner's syndrome
  • High blood sugar related to steroid use

Currently, there is not enough evidence to support the use of chromium supplements for these uses.

Possible Side Effects

In 1995, a study headed by Diane Stearns, Ph.D., at Dartmouth College generated controversy about the safety of chromium picolinate. The researchers added high concentrations of chromium picolinate, chromium chloride or chromium nicotinate to hamster cells in culture and found that only chromium picolinate could damage the genetic material of the hamster cells.

Since then, other laboratory studies using cell cultures and animals have suggested chromium picolinate causes oxidative stress and DNA damage.

Critics say that the scientists used unrealistically high doses and that administering chromium to cells in test tubes is not the same as taking chromium supplements orally.

In 2004, the Institute of Medicine reviewed the safety information on chromium for a prototype monograph and concluded that chromium picolinate is safe when used in a way consistent with published clinical data (up to 1.6 milligrams of chromium picolinate per day or 200 micrograms of chromium per day for three to six months).

There is very little information, however, about the safety of long-term use of chromium. There have been rare clinical case reports of adverse side effects after taking chromium picolinate supplements.

For example, a report published in the journal The Annals of Pharmacotherapy described the case of a 33-year-old woman who developed kidney failure, liver damage, and anemia after taking 1,200 to 2,400 micrograms of chromium picolinate (approximately six to 12 times the recommended daily allowance) for five months for weight loss.

The woman was being actively treated with antipsychotic medication, so it’s difficult to say whether it was the chromium, the combination of chromium with the medication, or another medical problem that was responsible for the reaction.

In a separate case report, a 24-year-old man who had been taking a supplement containing chromium picolinate for two weeks during his workout sessions developed acute kidney failure. Although chromium picolinate was the suspected cause, it's important to note that there were other ingredients in the supplement which may have been responsible.

Possible side effects of chromium picolinate include:

  • Unexplained bruising
  • Nosebleed
  • Skin rash or blisters
  • Urinate less than normal
  • Feel very tired
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

There are some concerns that chromium picolinate may affect levels of neurotransmitters (substances in the body that transmit nerve impulses). This may potentially be a concern for people with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Chromium picolinate, in high amounts, may have an additive effect if combined with diabetes medication and cause blood glucose levels to dip too low. It's important to talk to your doctor before taking any form of chromium if you are also taking diabetes medication.

Chromium supplements taken with medications that block the formation of prostaglandins (hormone-like substances), such as ibuprofen, indomethacin, naproxen, and aspirin, may increase the absorption of chromium in the body.

Dosage and Preparation

Your body needs very small amounts (an average of 0.025 mg a day) of chromium every day. However, according to medical sources, adequate amounts are usually obtained in the diet from foods such as American cheese, meat, fish, fruits, and whole grains.

There is not enough scientific information to establish safe and tolerable upper intake levels of chromium.

What to Look For

Chromium picolinate is one of the most popular supplements sold in vitamin shops and natural food stores. You may also find this supplement in your local grocery store. However, supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label.

Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.

You can get tips on using supplements, but if you're considering the use of chromium or any other form of alternative medicine, talk with your primary care provider first. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

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Article Sources
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