Magic Mineral Lifts Your Mood

A chemical found in everyday foods may help atypical depression. 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.

By Willow Lawson, published 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.

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 mood.