What Is Chromium Deficiency

  • Natasha Kaur Biomedical Science – Bachelors of Science, University of Lincoln, UK
  • Michika Montaldo Biomedical Science – Bachelors of Science, University of Lincoln, UK

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Introduction

Chromium deficiency is the reduction in the amount of chromium in a person’s body compared to normal.

Unlike many other minerals, chromium doesn’t naturally occur in the body, so it needs to be obtained through your diet or supplements. The two forms of chromium are the trivalent and hexavalent isotopes. The trivalent isotope (chromium 3+ form) is the type found in food, while the hexavalent isotope is a toxic by-product of the manufacturing process.1 This chromium 6+ form is emitted by industrial pollution. Chromium (3+) is mainly stored in the spleen, liver, soft tissue and bone of the body.8

Below, you will find more information about chromium deficiency, including how much is needed, the symptoms and signs indicating a deficiency, the impact of chromium deficiency on weight loss and diabetes and ways to increase your chromium intake to a sufficient level.

Roles of chromium in the body

As introduced, chromium 3+ plays a key role in metabolism. “Chromium works with insulin to help your body use blood sugar and may also be involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins,” explains Melissa Majumdar, an important spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The presence of chromium in the body is known to potentially improve sensitivity to insulin while also alleviating cardiovascular functions. Many studies have also described mechanisms of action on proximal insulin signalling.2 Chromium is currently prescribed to manage diabetes mellitus. It has been shown that chromium lowers fasting blood sugar. However, it does not affect glycated haemoglobin, body mass index (BMI)  and lipids (fats).3

No significant effect of chromium levels on glucose metabolism was found in people free from diabetes. However, with those who had diabetes, chromium supplementation greatly improved glycemia within these patients.5

Lipid metabolism in the body is thought to be regulated by chromium, with its mechanism being via the enhancement of insulin’s efficacy.Suggested by studies, people with type 2 diabetes have lower chromium blood levels than those without type 2 diabetes. A common risk factor for many cardiovascular disease risk factors is insulin resistance. 40 to 50% of people in their 60s and 70s are affected. Chromium supplementation may enhance the metabolic action of insulin, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. Chromium picolinate has been shown to lower insulin resistance (increase sensitivity) in order to minimise the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.7

Over 50 years ago, chromium was suggested to be an essential trace element. However, there are other studies out there currently in which the methods that were used to suggested have been criticised.

A more recent assessment of this element in a controlled environment without metals has led to results clearly indicating that chromium cannot be considered an essential element. This was because the chromium content of the diet in the studies showed to have no effect on body mass or food intake. Furthermore, it had no effect on glucose levels in glucose resistance or insulin resistance. Compared to a chromium-sufficient diet, studies revealed a diet with minimal chromium had no effect on glucose metabolism, body composition or insulin sensitivity.4

Causes of chromium deficiency

You may be asking how your chromium deficiency is acquired in the first place.

Approximately 25 mcg of chromium a day is sufficient for adults. This is often entirely feasible through a varied and balanced diet. For some people, if this level is not maintained, they can become deficient in the micronutrient. The mineral can be sourced from a person's diet, including fruits, vegetables, processed meats, grains and cereals.1 The following are potential ways you may become deficient in the chromium mineral:

  • Malnutrition: Since we know that chromium is a mineral derived from food and water, there can be a direct link between malnutrition and chromium deficiency.
  • Absorption issues:  A person's body can create the same issues as malnutrition despite the person’s diet being balanced. The minerals are not being absorbed, hence having the same effects.
  • Physiological stresses: Stresses such as infection, trauma, temperature irregularities, etc, placed on the body increase demand for chromium.1

These events eventually lead to changes in insulin-produced glucose, fat metabolism and protein, which further alters the metabolism of chromium.

Signs and symptoms of chromium deficiency

Here are the signs and symptoms of chromium deficiency:

  • Impaired glucose control
  • Increased risk of diabetes
  • Elevated blood lipid levels
  • Weight gain/obesity
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness

Diagnosis of chromium deficiency

There are many methods of diagnosis, including:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Glycemic control assessment (blood sugar)
  • Clinical evaluation of symptoms

Blood tests – Whole blood EDTA sample

Chromium levels greater than 4ug/L may be associated with metallosis.

Urine tests – Chromium is primarily excreted in the urine therefore, these levels are a good indicator of absorption in the body.

Glycemic control assessment – Low chromium levels are often associated with high blood sugar, as explained in the ‘Roles of chromium’ section. Low chromium levels result in compromised insulin activity. Therefore, blood sugar levels will be elevated.

Clinical evaluation – As outlined in the signs and symptoms, when a general practitioner (GP) P is presented with any of these symptoms, particularly general weakness, it is a good indicator for the GP to consider mineral deficiencies like chromium deficiency. If the patient has type 2 diabetes, it is more than likely for chromium deficiency to be present.

Populations at risk for chromium deficiency

These groups of people may be at a higher risk of chromium deficiency:

  • People with poor diets consisting of unbalanced/unvaried foods
  • People with diabetes
  • Elderly individuals
  • Pregnant women

Treatment and prevention

Dietary approaches to increase chromium intake – You can naturally increase your chromium intake by eating a more varied and balanced diets. You should focus on foods such as meat, nuts, and cereal grains, as suggested by the NHS.

  • Chromium supplements- Having 10mg or less of chromium per day from food and supplements is unlikely to cause any harm. Supplements can be purchased over the counter or through various trusted health websites. They may sometimes be given in the form of a prescription sent by the GP to a pharmacy.
  • Ensure to always use chromium supplements directly as instructed or as advised by a doctor/ health professional and never give supplements to a child unless you have been advised by the doctor.
  • Monitoring and follow-up – If you have chromium deficiency, it is important that you book routine blood tests to track your chromium levels and ensure you are only receiving sufficient treatment. This is because excessive chromium in the body may also be harmful to you.

Complications of untreated chromium deficiency

If chromium deficiency is left undiagnosed or untreated for a prolonged period, you have an increased risk for diabetes. Trivalent (3+) chromium is understood to induce insulin action,9 so reduced chromium levels could reduce insulin action and, therefore, increase blood sugar levels.

Further, untreated chromium deficiency risks other cardiovascular implications. It has been shown that lower plasma chromium levels are prominent in those with coronary artery disease in comparison to non-disease subjects.10 

Finally, untreated chromium deficiency may have an impact on your weight management. Since chromium may play a role in metabolism, low levels of the mineral may slow down your metabolism, potentially making it more difficult to lose weight or gain weight.

Conclusion

To summarise, chromium is important for insulin action and lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. These, in turn, contribute to the regulation of diabetes, particularly those with type 2 diabetes.

Early detection and treatment are important as it prevent further complications and the risk of cardiovascular disk. Also, though, as with most deficiencies, early detection just means you won’t feel so under the weather all the time!

If it wasn’t emphasised enough, a balanced, healthy and varied diet is very important and plays a significant role in health. If you have chromium deficiency specifically, ensure you are prioritising a balanced diet, as this is key in increasing your chromium uptake back to normal. 

References

  1. Afzal S, Ocasio Quinones GA. Chromium deficiency. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Sep 5]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK582150/
  2. Hua Y, Clark S, Ren J, Sreejayan N. Molecular mechanisms of chromium in alleviating insulin resistance. J Nutr Biochem [Internet]. 2012 Apr [cited 2023 Sep 7];23(4):313–9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3308119/
  3. Abdollahi M, Farshchi A, Nikfar S, Seyedifar M. Effect of chromium on glucose and lipid profiles in patients with type 2 diabetes; a meta-analysis review of randomized trials. J Pharm Pharm Sci. 2013;16(1):99–114.
  4. Di Bona KR, Love S, Rhodes NR, McAdory D, Sinha SH, Kern N, et al. Chromium is not an essential trace element for mammals: effects of a “low-chromium” diet. J Biol Inorg Chem. 2011 Mar;16(3):381–90.
  5. Balk EM, Tatsioni A, Lichtenstein AH, Lau J, Pittas AG. Effect of chromium supplementation on glucose metabolism and lipids: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Diabetes Care. 2007 Aug;30(8):2154–63.
  6. Vincent JB, Lukaski HC. Chromium. Adv Nutr. 2018 Jul 1;9(4):505–6
  7. Havel PJ. A scientific review: the role of chromium in insulin resistance. Diabetes Educ. 2004;Suppl:2–14.
  8. Office of dietary supplements - chromium [Internet]. [cited 2023 Sep 7]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Chromium-HealthProfessional/
  9. Bertinato J, Griffin P. A low chromium diet increases body fat, energy intake and circulating triglycerides and insulin in male and female rats fed a moderately high-fat, high-sucrose diet from peripuberty to young adult age. PLoS One. 2023;18(1):e0281019.
  10. Simonoff M. Chromium deficiency and cardiovascular risk. Cardiovasc Res. 1984 Oct;18(10):591–6.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Natasha Kaur

Biomedical Science – Bachelors of Science, University of Lincoln, UK

Natasha is a dedicated full-time student with a significant background in all things health and biology related, acquired over several years, which is why sharing concise health-related knowledge to the public has developed into one of her strong passions. Her interest lies in cancer-related topics, including her final year degree dissertation project, and so educating people about the disease is of particular interest to her. She has established recent experience in medical writing with Klarity Health which has pointed her into a full-time writing career, post graduating.

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