Originally published June 9 2009
Mental Health Tied to Chromium and Insulin
by Dr. Phil Domenico
(NaturalNews) Long known for its beneficial effects on blood sugar, chromium (Cr) has most recently been tied to cognitive health as well. In May of 2009, scientists from the USDA and the Medical College of Georgia reported that Cr supplementation helped prevent Alzheimer`s disease in rodents. In humans, Alzheimer`s is a process that is decades in the making, and has been tied to poor diet, blood sugar and insulin dysfunction. A virtual explosion of new studies on the relationship between dementia and metabolic disorders - such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and elevated blood lipids - has surfaced. Understanding these connections is giving rise to novel strategies for prevention of this disorder.
Many of today`s health issues are tied to insulin health. Insulin is known mainly as an injection taken to control blood sugar after a meal. Most people, including those with diabetes, produce their own insulin as they eat. Yet, in up to a quarter of the population, it is not functioning properly. Insulin is needed to utilize nutrients from food, helping to transport these nutrients into every cell in the body. It`s job is to disburse macronutrients (sugar, protein and fat) after a meal. Thus, insulin is called the "master metabolic hormone" or the "storage hormone" because it helps store the major nutrients in our cells. Insulin is also vital because it prevents a build-up of blood sugar and fat, which inflame blood vessels. Chronic inflammation of endothelial tissue (the inner lining of arteries) leads to hypertension and artherosclerosis. It is amazing how important this one protein is for health and longevity.
Insulin dysfunction is the central problem that links many chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems, Alzheimer`s disease and depression. Insulin problems result in uncontrolled blood sugar, which leads to a cascade of problems. Sugar and its byproducts tend to stick to things in blood, including proteins, cells and vessel walls. The damage is gauged by the HbA1c test, which measures the percent of hemoglobin destroyed by sugar. High blood sugar and diabetes can lead to kidney damage, blindness and amputation, and speed up the aging process. A sedentary lifestyle and poor diet promote the process, by taxing insulin's capacity to function under non-ideal conditions.
The main problem is diet-related. It`s in the bread, cereal, crackers, pasta, pastries, rice, cookies, potatoes, soft drinks, sweetened fruit juices, table sugar and other starchy foods we eat. High fructose corn syrup - one of the worst offenders is abundant in many processed foods. Even "healthy" whole grains can elevate blood sugar, though not usually to the same extent. At least whole grains have some of the nutrients that promote good metabolism. Excessive carbohydrate intake causes insulin to spike and stresses the insulin-making machinery in the pancreas. After years of metabolic stress, the body may stop responding to insulin, which causes further carb cravings and promotes obesity. After years of addiction to refined carbs and fast foods, the disorder cascades to the point of breakdown, which manifests differently in different people.
Insulin's job is simple enough. However, the body can stop responding to insulin - a condition called insulin resistance (IR). Dr. David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center defines IR as when insulin can no longer inject enough glucose into the body`s cells for fuel. Rather than feeding the body, sugars and fats build up to dangerous levels in the blood, and contribute to chronic and debilitating disease. Meanwhile, the cells are starving, so the person eats more and never feels satiated. IR is on the rise, with more than 60 million Americans at risk. The common signs of IR include obesity, elevated blood pressure, high triglycerides, fatigue, cognitive problems, hypoglycemia, bloating and depression.
In the latter stages of diabetes, high blood sugar reflects a dual problem: first, not enough insulin is being made by a failing pancreas (insulin deficiency); second, the body is not responding to the insulin present (IR). IR usually precedes insulin deficiency by decades. In other words, people spend years and decades in a pre-diabetic state. After the onset of diabetes, IR continues, so even injected insulin does not function all that well.
Recent research is making the picture clearer. Taking in energy-rich foods minus the nutrients to help utilize that energy, and minus the effort to burn that energy, results in obesity. Fat cannot be burned for fuel on a high-carbohydrate diet. Chronically high insulin levels keep the liver from releasing fat into the bloodstream and promote more fat build up, and dangerously so in the liver. So, the potential for energy is there (as fat), but it`s not available as long as insulin levels remain high and carbs are the main staple. The body feels starved despite the vast stores of energy available. Restricting carbohydrates can correct many of the metabolic problems related to IR.
The number of U.S. adults with diagnosed diabetes is projected to more than double by 2050. This trend, if continued, could very well destroy our health care system. As it is, the management of diabetes and its complications imposes an enormous medical and economic burden on the country - to the tune of nearly 132 billion dollars a year, or $13,000 dollars yearly per person. Given the epidemic of IR and its close connection with diabetes, primary prevention has become a public health imperative. Two recent landmark clinical trials in Finland and the U.S. have demonstrated that modest weight loss and physical activity can significantly reduce diabetes among older adults at high risk. Even modest changes in lifestyle can reduce diabetes incidence by nearly 60 percent.
Controlling insulin is a very powerful anti-aging strategy. High blood insulin is the single largest physical cause of accelerated aging. The result of elevated insulin is a build-up of fat, particularly in the mid-section, which promotes inflammation throughout the body. The good news is that insulin is easily influenced by lifestyle changes, especially by reducing excess abdominal fat. A diet low in refined carbohydrates, but rich in green, leafy veggies, is one of the most effective ways to lower one`s insulin levels, especially when combined with an aerobic exercise program. Additionally, nutrient supplementation has been shown to make a difference in insulin health. Many well-controlled clinical studies show blood glucose improvements with a variety of nutritional supplements.
An often-overlooked nutrient in this equation is chromium (Cr). Cr is a trace mineral that helps insulin work more efficiently. Cr was known to help control blood sugar in animals as far back as the middle of the last century. It was designated an essential trace mineral by the National Research Council, and is now recommended to be included in diets and IV solutions. However, Cr is not so easy to procure from foods, largely because this mineral is not required for plant growth. Plus, the Cr form found in many foods (e.g., beer) may not be absorbed efficiently in the gut.
Cr is an essential element required for normal carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism. Nutritional Cr is an essential co-factor for insulin function. It helps insulin transport nutrients out of the blood to feed every cell in the body. Cr helps get sugar and fat where it is needed instead of building up to dangerous levels in blood vessels. It has been shown to alleviate IR in numerous animal and human studies.
In previous articles by the current author, it was emphasized that not all Cr supplements are created equal. Until recently, only chromium picolinate (CrPic) has been solidly supported by science. Recently, a new member of the chelated Cr family, chromium histidinate (CrHis), has been introduced by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that rivals CrPic in supporting blood sugar control.
Recent data presented at the Experimental Biology 2009 conference in New Orleans revealed that CrHis significantly increased brain serotonin levels in animal models of obesity and diabetes. Increased serotonin (the feel-good hormone) levels are known to improve mood and decrease carbohydrate cravings. This indicates that CrHis is being absorbed by animals after oral intake, and is helping insulin feed brain cells, which helps curb appetite. It is also known that Cr promotes brain uptake of an amino acid called tryptophan, which is converted directly to serotonin (with help from vitamin B6). It can then be converted to melatonin, an important sleep inducer. Thus, Cr may be useful in sleep and mood disorders. In fact, several psychiatrists have supported these effects in their studies in humans. CrPic has been shown to improve a certain type of depression common in overweight people with carb cravings. Furthermore, the beneficial effects of CrPic have been reviewed by the FDA, which granted a qualified health claim for IR and blood sugar control. No other Cr supplement and virtually no supplement of any kind can make this claim.
In the latest chapter on the benefits of Cr for brain health, scientists have shown that CrHis and CrPic reduced the expression of a protein (Tau) involved in Alzheimer`s disease. Notably, the high doses of CrPic used in these studies were deemed safe and did not cause kidney dysfunction in experimentally-diseased animals. These data suggest that by improving blood sugar metabolism, daily Cr supplementation can reduce dementia over the long haul. This is especially true in people with diabetes, wherein the aging process is happening at full speed. These data provide new reasons to get high quality Cr in the diet to address significant quality of life issues in mental health.
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About the authorDr. Phil Domenico is a nutritional scientist and educator with a research background in biochemistry and microbiology. Formerly an infectious disease scientist, he now works as a consultant for supplement companies and the food industry.
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