Role of Chromium in Human Health and in Diabetes

  1. William T. Cefalu, MD1 and
  2. Frank B. Hu, MD, PHD2
  1. 1Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  2. 2Harvard University School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
  1. Address correspondence and reprint requests to William T. Cefalu, MD, Division of NutritionChronic Disease, The Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University, 6400 Perkins Rd., Baton Rouge, LA 70808. E-mail: cefaluwt{at}pbrc.edu

Despite widespread use by patients with diabetes and anecdotal reports in the past regarding its efficacy, until recently, data in humans concerning chromium’s effects on insulin action in vivo or on cellular aspects of insulin action were scarce. Consequently, significant controversy still exists regarding the effect of chromium supplementation on parameters assessing human health. Furthermore, elucidating the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which chromium supplements affect carbohydrate metabolism in vivo is necessary before specific recommendations can be made regarding its routine use in the management of diabetes. This review focuses on providing current information about this trace mineral’s specific mechanisms of action and clinical trials in patients with diabetes.

Chromium, one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust and seawater, exists in our environment in several oxidation states, principally as metallic (Cr0), trivalent (+3), and hexavalent (+6) chromium. The latter is largely synthesized by the oxidation of the more common and naturally occurring trivalent chromium and is highly toxic. Trivalent chromium, found in most foods and nutrient supplements, is an essential nutrient with very low toxicity.

The interest in chromium as a nutritional enhancement to glucose metabolism can be traced back to the 1950s, when it was suggested that brewer’s yeast contained a glucose tolerance factor (GTF) that prevented diabetes in experimental animals (1). This factor was eventually suggested to be a biologically active form of trivalent chromium that could substantially lower plasma glucose levels in diabetic mice (2). Interest regarding chromium administration in patients with diabetes was kindled by the observation in the 1970s that it truly was an essential nutrient required for normal carbohydrate metabolism. A patient receiving total parenteral nutrition (TPN) developed severe signs of diabetes, including weight loss and hyperglycemia that was refractory to increasing insulin dosing (3). Based on previous animal studies …

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