We need this mineral to process sugar. But most Americans are running too low. Vitamins like C and E get the attention in nutrition, but unglamorous minerals are essential to good health, too. In fact, more than a dozen minerals help rule our bodies. One of them, chromium, is powerful in making insulin work correctly. Do you think only America's 16 million diabetics need to think about insulin? Wrong: Out-of-whack blood sugar contributes to weight gain, high cholesterol and high blood pressure in many of us. How much chromium you need depends on who you are.

Here are the guidelines:

If you have diabetes: For a decade, scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have suspected that chromium can help fight diabetes. Recently, a USDA study of 180 Type 2 diabetics in China documented "spectacular" results from taking 1,000 micrograms of chromium picolinate daily. Bottom line: "Nearly all of them no longer had the classic signs of diabetes," says chief researcher Richard Anderson. Blood sugar and insulin became normal. Most important, the "gold standard" diagnostic measure of diabetes, blood levels of hemoglobin A1c, sank to normal. 

Lois Jovanovic-Peterson, a diabetes specialist at the Sansum Medical Research Foundation in Santa Barbara, Calif., agrees that the chromium supplement was "as good [in controlling blood glucose] as what we have available: oral hypoglycemic agents, diet and exercise." 

The American Diabetes Association, however, has not embraced chromium therapy, saying more studies are needed. 

Meanwhile, if you have Type 2 diabetes and want to try chromium, here is Anderson's advice. First, consult your doctor. Monitor your blood sugar closely. Chromium may push your blood sugar low, necessitating reduction or discontinuation of your medication. Though the USDA's Chinese study used 1,000mcg, most diabetics need only 400-600mcg of chromium daily. Typically, blood sugar improves within three weeks, some within a few days; improvement was greatest after four months. The chromium was an organic type, picolinate. Other "organic" chromiums also are likely to work; chromium chloride is considered less effective. 

Important: Not all diabetics will benefit from chromium, Anderson says, especially if they have had the disease longer than 10 years and serious diabetic complications are present. 

If you have high blood sugar: Millions of Americans are pre-diabetic, with high blood sugar and sluggish insulin, also known as insulin resistance or insensitivity. Taking 200mcg of chromium supplements daily could help prevent as many as half of such high-risk people from slipping over into full-blown diabetes, Anderson estimates. Chromium helps make insulin more sensitive so you need less to process sugar; thus, blood sugar and insulin levels are lower. High circulating levels of insulin can be destructive to arteries, recent research shows. Such "insulin resistance" is a newly designated risk factor in cardiovascular disease, along with high cholesterol and blood pressure. Interestingly, chromium has the opposite effect on abnormally low blood sugar; it raises or "normalizes" it, Anderson says.

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