What is chromium?
Chromium is a mineral our bodies use in small amounts for normal body functions, such as digesting food. Chromium exists in many natural foods including brewer's yeast, meats, potatoes (especially the skins), cheeses, molasses, spices, whole-grain breads and cereals, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Drinking hard tap water supplies chromium to the body, and cooking in stainless-steel cookware increases the chromium content in foods.
You can buy chromium supplements alone in tablets or capsules or as part of a multivitamin. But because the human body needs very little chromium, most people get enough in their regular diet and do not require natural health products. Those at risk for chromium deficiency include people with diabetes and the elderly.
What is chromium used for?
Chromium helps to move blood sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream into the cells to be used as energy and to turn fats, carbohydrates, and proteins into energy.
- Chromium may help some people with type 2 diabetes. It may help them control their blood sugar and may play a role in the management of type 2 diabetes. But more studies are needed to know how well it really works.
- Low chromium levels may cause high cholesterol and may increase your risk for coronary artery disease (CAD). Supplemental chromium may increase "good" (HDL) cholesterol and lower triglycerides and total cholesterol levels in people with high blood sugar and diabetes. But more studies are needed to know how well it really works.
- Chromium supplements are promoted as being helpful in building muscle and burning fat and in helping the body use carbohydrates. But this has not been proved.
- Chromium may affect the eyes. There is a link between low chromium levels and increased risk of glaucoma.
- Chromium slows the loss of calcium, so it may help prevent bone loss in women during menopause.
Is chromium safe?
The chromium found in foods will not hurt you. But taking excessive chromium supplements can lead to stomach problems and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Too much chromium from supplements can also damage the liver, kidneys, and nerves, and it may cause irregular heart rhythm. But side effects from taking chromium supplements are rare.
Antacids (including calcium carbonate) interfere with the absorption of chromium.
Being exposed to high levels of chromium on the job (such as in metallurgy and electroplating) has been linked not only to kidney damage but also to lung and other cancers as well as skin conditions such as eczema and other inflammations of the skin.
The Natural and Non-Prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD), within the Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada, regulates natural health products in Canada. Natural health products, including chromium, must be reviewed and approved by the NNHPD before they can be sold in Canada.
Always tell your doctor if you are using a natural health product or if you are thinking about combining a natural health product with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a natural health product. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
When using natural health products, keep in mind the following:
- Like conventional medicines, natural health products may cause side effects, trigger allergic reactions, or interact with prescription and non-prescription medicines or other natural health products you might be taking. A side effect or interaction with another medicine or natural health product may make other health conditions worse.
- The way natural health products are manufactured may not be standardized. Because of this, how well they work or any side effects they cause may differ among brands or even within different lots of the same brand. The form of natural health product that you buy in health food or grocery stores may not be the same as the form used in research.
- Other than for vitamins and minerals, the long-term effects of most natural health products are not known.
Other Works Consulted
- Chromium (2009). In A DerMarderosian et al., eds., Review of Natural Products. St. Louis: Wolters Kluwer Health.
- Murray MT (2013). Obesity. In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 1638–1650. St. Louis: Mosby.
Current as of: December 20, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Brian O'Brien, MD, FRCPC - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine