Chromium the cholesterol fighter

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Medical experts now agree that lowering cholesterol can prevent serious health problems...for every point you lower cholesterol, your risk of heart attack drops by two percent.

Fat-free! Low cholesterol! No tropical oils! The signs are everywhere as market-conscious food companies rush to embrace the biggest health trend of the century. But even the strictest cholesterol-lowering program may be missing a key element chromium. In fact, researchers have discovered that niacin-bound chromium, a trace mineral supplement, can help lower cholesterol without undesirable side effects.

True, chromium sounds like something for your car, not your body. But like iron and zinc, chromium is essential to good health. Deficiency can lead to diabetes-like symptoms, as well as elevated cholesterol. Problem is, most foods are very low in chromium. In fact, the Department of Agriculture has found that nine our of 10 Americans tested receive too little chromium in a typical diet. That's no surprise, since the richest sources of biologically active chromium are brewer's yeast, liver and black pepper--and even they're not high enough. According to the Recommended Daily Allowances from the National Research Council, adults need 50 to 200 micrograms of chromium a day. Unfortunately, most Americans consume only 25 to 35 micrograms. You can get all the chromium you need in a daily supplement--just be aware that chromium comes in many different forms, with markedly different properties. For instance, most supplements contain lowgrade inorganic chromium salts that are poorly absorbed (0.5% to 2%). Although chromium from enriched brewer's yeast is better, some people are allergic to yeast. The alternative kind of chromium is bound to niacin or other organic molecules which improve absorption and biological activity. one form, niacin-bound chromium, is increasingly used in vitamin-mineral formulas designed to lower cholesterol.
NEW EVIDENCE FOR CHROMIUM

At last year's meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), nutrition researcher Robert Lefavi, Ph.D. revealed some dramatic results. A study with 34 male athletes showed that supplementing their diet with 200 micrograms of niacin-bound chromium (the test used Chrome Mate a patented Ingredient of interhealth company) a day significantly lowered serum cholesterol by an average of 14 percent. Plus, it increased by 7 percent the ratio of "good" high-density lipoproteins (HDL) to total cholesterol--with no changes in the subjects' diet or physical activity. Dr. Lefavi, now Director of Research for the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Georgia Southern University is "very encouraged" by the results, and plans new research with subjects at risk of cardiovascular disease. This suggests that for some people, niacin-bound chromium could be their secret for success in lowering cholesterol. Even more promising is the fact that a daily dose contains only 2 milligrams of niacin. That means it's unlikely to cause undesirable side effects that can result from too much niacin, such as skin flushing, diarrhea, and even liver damage. (Currently, a high dose of niacin is the most frequently prescribed treatment for high cholesterol.)
THE CHROMIUM-CHOLESTEROL CONNECTION

The idea that niacin-bound chromium could help alleviate risks associated with high cholesterol is especially significant in this country. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes killed nearly a million Americans in 1987--almost as many as from all other causes of death combined. The prime culprit, atherosclerosis, does its deadly job by blocking our arteries with deposits of fat and cholesterol. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly 100 million Americans--even children and teenagers--are at moderate risk of cardiovascular disease, with blood cholesterol levels over 200 mg/dl. And about 50 million have "red flag" levels of 240 mg/dl and above. After lengthy debate, medical experts now agree that lowering cholesterol can prevent serious health problems. In fact, for every point you lower your cholesterol, your risk of heart attack drops by two percent. Those are good odds.

Compelling evidence came in 1990 when The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper proving that cutting cholesterol reduces the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The 10-year study showed that lowering cholesterol can eliminate the need to surgically clean out or bypass clogged arteries--risky procedures at best.

Yet, one issue remained largely unexamined Why are Americans so prone to heart disease in the first place? Part of the answer may lie in our chromium-deficient diets. In fact, chromium deficiency is connected with most known risk factors of cardiovascular disease.
GEOGRAPHY, CHROMIUM AND HEART DISEASE

In so-called underdeveloped countries, heart disease is relatively rare. In the same countries, tissue and blood chromium levels are typically two to three times higher than in the Est, where heart disease is common. And in western countries, the risk of heart diseae increases with age-- while chromium levels decrease markedly.

The problem starts with crops grown in overworked, chromium-depleted soil, and worsens as the food is further processed and refined. But nutrient deficiency is just the half of it. Junk foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates-- soda, candy, cookies, ice cream--actually drain the body's meager chromium reserves, while putting weight on. Ironically, exercising to remove those pounds causes the body to lose even more of its chromium in sweat and urine. Pregnancy and illness speed the lost of chromium as well.
CHROMIUM RESEARCH BUILDS CASE

For years, researchers have been uncovering evidence that chromium can improve cholesterol levels. Before the Lefavi study with athletes, previous clinical research had suggested that chromium could lower "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides in humans, while raising "good" HDL cholesterol. A study presented at the 1979 International Symposium on Atherosclerosis showed that 26 subjects receiving chromium-rich brewer's yeast had a 10 percent average reduction in LDL, and a 14 percent increase in HDL, numbers which helped motivate further research.

A 1981 report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 23 men whose diets were supplemented with 200 micrograms of chromium per day. Their HDL levels increased by 11 percent. Intriguingly, chromium also lowered blood insulin levels in men whose insulin was elevated at the start. These results brought up another piece of the puzzle the insulin connection.
HELPING INSULIN WORK

Many important biological molecules can't work without trace mineral cofactors. Hemoglobin needs iron. Some enzymes need zinc. Insulin needs chromium. Increasing evidence points to insulin as the mechanism for chromium's ability to lower cholesterol.

Insulin is used by cells to metabolize glucose for energy. Too little causes diabetes; too much causes hypoglycemia. A form of biologically active chromium is needed to help insulin do its job, transporting glucose and amino acids into the tissues. This helper molecule, Glucose Tolerance Factor or GTF chromium, has been described as consisting of chromium bound to niacin. A lack of GTF chromium impairs insulin function; severly chromium-deficient people can develop symptoms of diabetes (glucose intolerance).

Diabetics typically suffer from cardiovascular disease. In some cases, such as Type 11 diabetes, the body produces plenty of insulin, but their tissues don't respond--a problem called insulin resistance. Some non-diabetes, especially obese people, can also develop insulin resistance, marked by high levels of circulating insulin and cholesterol, and high blood pressure. This greatly increases their risk of heart disease. Now, some scientists are putting it all together, and suggesting a link between chromium deficiency, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.

This is not to say that all people with high cholesterol have a chromium deficiency. But there is evidence to suggest that chromium helps lower cholesterol by alleviating a natural deficiency and improving insulin function without undesirable side effects.

Estimated Percentage of American Adults With
Serum Cholesterol of 200 mg/dl or More

Ages Men Women

20-24 26.7 30.4

25-34 43.3 35.6

35-44 60.9 52.4

45-54 72.0 74.7

55-64 74.1 87.0

65-74 66.5 84.0

Source: National Health and Nutrition Survey, 1976-1980
(NHANES II), National Center for Health Statistics.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):As atherosclerotic plaque builds up on the sides of the coronary arteries, they begin to narrow. Sometimes a blood clot, coiled call a thromboembolus, con become lodged in the narrowed artery and block the blood flow, resulting in heart attack.

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By Greg Vogel

Greg Vogel is a science and health writer based in San Francisco. His background includes experience as a science reporter in Washington, D.C., environmental policy analyst and communications consultant.

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