By Willow Lawson, published on April 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The next way to stay happy may come not from a complex chemical
compound developed in a lab but from a mineral found in everyday foods.
But its safety remains in dispute.
Duke University scientists found that consuming chromium
picolinate, a trace mineral naturally found in whole grains, mushrooms,
liver and many other foods, has significant effects on individuals
suffering from atypical depression. Something of a misnomer, atypical
depression is actually the most typical form, characterized by excessive
sleep, carbohydrate craving and overeating, and hypersensitivity to
rejection. Atypical depression responds to a class of antidepressants
known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors, but burdensome dietary
restrictions as well as side effects like sexual dysfunction and weight
gain make treatment with these drugs impractical for many.
In a small, double-blind pilot study at Duke University Medical
Center, 15 people with atypical depression were given supplements of 600
micrograms of chromium picolinate. That dose that is more than five times
higher than most Americans get in their diets. There is no Recommended
Daily Allowance (RDA) for chromium. Five other subjects in the study were
given a placebo.
After eight weeks, seven of the 10 who were given chromium
picolinate had a significant decrease in their depression symptoms. Those
taking the dietary supplement experienced no side effects.
"People who were overeating had really significant
changes," reports Jonathan Davidson, M.D., a professor of
psychiatry and director of the Anxiety and Traumatic Stress program at
Duke. The findings appeared in an issue of the journal
Biological Psychiatry. The study was sponsored by
Nutrition 21, a commercial manufacturer of dietary supplements.
It's not clear how chromium picolinate affects depression, but it
may be tied to insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar. Studies
going back to the 1970s have shown chromium picolinate increases insulin
sensitivity and helps body cells take up glucose, their basic fuel, from
the blood stream. The brain requires a constant supply of glucose to
maintain proper function.
Scientists know that diabetics have a rate of depression that is at
least twice that of the general population. The rate is even higher for
diabetic women. Depression makes the body less sensitive to
Insulin is also intricately tied to the production of
neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Best known for its role in
regulating mood, serotonin also reduces pain and decreases appetite as
well as producing a state of calm.
Chromium picolinate is already popular as a dietary supplement.
It's marketed to athletes as a muscle-builder and touted as a treatment
for weight loss and diabetes, although research has yet to prove any of
these claims. Moreover, chromium picolinate may have a dark side. Kidney
problems have been linked to the supplement, as well as chromosomal
mutations in lab animals. Although dietary supplements do not require
approval of the Food and Drug Administration, the agency is investigating
whether chromium may be harmful.
With all of the contradictory claims, it's no wonder the Institute
of Medicine has chosen chromium picolinate as one of six supplements to
review in the first test of an evaluation program developed for the FDA,
which has been under increasing pressure to regulate dietary supplements.
Ongoing studies will reveal whether the mineral can work magic with