Metabolic Syndrome (MetS) is diagnosed when you present with three of the following symptoms: high blood pressure, high triglycerides, elevated LDL cholesterol, abdominal fat (the beer belly or love handles) and high fasting blood glucose levels. One study, published in 2002, revealed that 34% of US adults suffer from this disorder. However, when new guidelines from the International Diabetes Foundation are applied, we find that 46% of adults are affected! Almost one out of two of us suffer from a condition that seriously increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Recent research has also linked this condition to an increased likelihood of some forms of arthritis, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's and schizophrenia, so it is most certainly something that we need to urgently address. There are a variety of factors that are relevant to each of the five markers for MetS but in this article I will be focusing on the link to a mineral deficiency which is widespread and largely ignored. Chromium deficiency is very common, to the point that it occurs in at least one in two of us.
Getting Back to Root Causes
Recently I was approached by a close friend on Norfolk Island who was seeking to find the root cause of her very high blood pressure. When I checked her blood work, I noted that she also had high LDL cholesterol and high fasting blood glucose levels. She does, in fact, qualify for a Metabolic Syndrome diagnosis on the basis of a score of three out of five. The response of the medical profession was to prescribe multiple drug therapy and she was not happy with the prospect of continuing these medications indefinitely, particularly since they made her feel unwell. She asked if I could conduct a hair test to try to throw some light on the matter.
Interestingly, I uncovered mineral deficiencies of copper and boron, which are also commonly lacking in the soils of Norfolk Island. We are what we eat and what we eat comes from the soil. On Norfolk Island, residents only have access to fresh produce that is grown on the island (with the exception of potatoes and onions) so you would expect to see soil deficiencies become human deficiencies. When I checked the links between boron and copper deficiency and high blood pressure, I found several papers that confirm a relationship. However it was another trace mineral that really caught my notice. My friend was seriously deficient in chromium, to the point that it was barely measurable. I had understood the role of chromium in insulin management but was really surprised to discover that chromium deficiency is related to every marker in the disorder of energy utilization and storage that is Metabolic Syndrome.
Why are so many of us lacking chromium?
Chromium is required for blood sugar management amongst many things. It makes sense that as we have increased our uptake of sugar, we have also depleted our chromium supplies and increased our requirements. The annual consumption of sugar in the US was 5 kg per person in 1900 but that had increased to 75 kg per person, per year, by the year 2000. It is obvious that we are going to need a lot more chromium in our diet to manage a fifteen-fold increase in sugar consumption. Unfortunately, industrial, extractive agriculture has systematically mined and leached chromium from our soils over the past decade and it is never replaced.
I was introduced to the magical piece of pacific paradise, Norfolk Island, when I was invited there by the local government to train their farmers in sustainable food production. The government followed up on that initial visit by subsidising local growers to test their soils. We tested about fifty food-producing areas to gain an insight into the mineral profile of the island. We found five minerals that were uniformly lacking in the soils and one must assume that they are also lacking in the local people. Chromium is not a mineral that is routinely tested in a soil test but perhaps it should be. I have now tested several locals for chromium and every one of them is seriously deficient. I then began to check chromium levels in soils from this region for the first time, and the mineral was barely measurable. This is a major finding for the people of the island and it would be fascinating to research the levels of Metabolic Syndrome on the Island and the links to this deficiency.
Chromium and Longevity
The optimum management of insulin and blood sugar becomes critically important based on recent longevity findings. In two separate large-scale studies of centenarians, it was found that the only common denominator in all of those lucky enough to reach the big 100 was low blood insulin. This complements a raft of earlier studies that have linked calorie restriction to increased longevity. Calorie restriction is linked to lower blood sugar and associated blood insulin. It seems obvious that a deficiency in chromium, the main mineral responsible for insulin and blood sugar management, is likely to seriously impact our chances of joining the exclusive 100 club. It is suggested we need a dietary intake of 50 mcg of chromium, but the modern western diet delivers less than half of this amount. The highest food source of chromium is brewers yeast, but it is hardly a food and the unpleasant flavour is not conducive to regular consumption. I guess the beer drinkers have something to compensate for the fact that their choice of poison has the highest known Glycemic index (110) and associated capacity to spike blood sugar, blood insulin and shorten your life. It seems a safer bet to supplement with chromium on a daily basis.
Chromium, Cholesterol and Weight Loss
The founder of the famous low carb diet, Dr Robert Atkins, claimed that 90% of Americans are chromium deficient and he saw this as a major issue, recognising that "chromium is the most pivotal nutrient involved in sugar metabolism". Chromium normalizes glucose and insulin levels, lowers LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and raises HDL cholesterol, and there are published papers on all of these functions. There are even studies suggesting that chromium promotes fat loss and lean muscle mass retention including a comprehensive review of the research published by Dr Richard Anderson in the Nutrition Review in 1998. Dr Anderson, a chemist working with the USDA, is considered the world's foremost authority on the critical role of chromium. So, the entire list of five markers used to diagnose Metabolic Syndrome are impacted by chromium deficiency. This includes abdominal fat, which has been shown to increase the risk of succumbing to the ten degenerative diseases that most commonly claim us, by 500%. It sounds like a good reason to lose the gut, and chromium may be a major player in achieving this arduous task.
How much chromium can we safely take and what form is best?
There is no evidence that naturally derived chromium can be overdosed. In fact, the most common problem with those supplementing this mineral is that they are often simply not taking enough to make a difference. There are two types of chromium, one is a byproduct of industry (hexavalent chromium or CrV1) and the other is found naturally in food and called divalent chromium or Cr111. Natural chromium is most commonly available in chelated form as chromium picolinate. CrV1 can be toxic, but that is not the case with the natural form. Research on comparative dose rates has shown that the typical supplementation rate of 200 mcg has not always delivered the benefits found with higher rates. In fact, benefits like the lowering of total cholesterol and triglycerides and the raising of HDL cholesterol were much more prevalent when as much as 1000 mcg was supplemented over the four-month study period (Anderson et al, 1997). Dose rates of 500 mcg to 1000 mcg of chromium picolinate appear to be the most productive, if we are seeking a therapeutic response.
How can we boost chromium uptake?
There are a number of bad habits and dietary practices that can negatively influence the uptake and storage of chromium and magnify excretion. The major contributor to what could be called a plague of chromium deficiency is over-consumption of carbohydrates and/or simple sugars. There should be no surprise that chromium deficiency is rife when the foundation of the food pyramid is based on carbohydrates and when we are also consuming up to 70 kg of sugar per person, per year. Urinary excretion of chromium has been shown to increase by 100 – 300% when simple sugars are abused. However, chromium uptake is boosted substantially when this mineral is supplemented in conjunction with vitamin C.
There are also other major players in our loss of chromium. Phytic acid in cereal grains and soy milk can be particularly counterproductive. In one study, conducted by Bryson and Goodall, rats fed with phytic acid and chromium had much lower blood and tissue levels of chromium than the control. In contrast, the animals fed with oxalic acid and chromium had significantly higher levels of this mineral in their blood.
Minerals can also impact chromium uptake and the worst culprit is iron. People with Hemochromatosis are notoriously deficient in chromium because the excess iron in their blood competes with chromium binding on the transferase. The iron competes directly with chromium for binding and transportation and chromium usually comes off second best. Amino acid complexes have also been shown to increase uptake of chromium by up to 100%.
It appears to me that a productive chromium supplementation strategy would involve 500 mcg of chromium picolinate with a teaspoon of BioSpark™ (vitamin C complex) and a heaped teaspoon of Digest-Ease™, which is both a probiotic and a rich source of multiple amino acids. The synergy here also involves the proven concept of putting the microbes behind the minerals to magnify response. You could even mix the above combination into a kale-based green smoothie to reap the rewards from using the oxalic acid content of this brassica to further boost the chromium response. In fact, I will try this myself when I return home from my current seminar tour abroad.
When we tried to reduce our fat intake, the unintended consequence was a large increase in our carbohydrate consumption. One of the many side effects of this carb-loaded diet was the increased excretion of chromium from our bodies. Ironically, this is the one mineral that seriously protects us from the ravages of excess carbs (high blood sugar, high blood insulin, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high triglycerides). It is a major root cause of many of these problems and many of us would benefit greatly from supplementing decent rates of chromium. Ideally, this supplementation should be combined with vitamin C, amino acids and probiotics to magnify the desired response.