June 3, 2004 -- A popular nutritional supplement may reduce serious carb cravings in people with depression.
The supplement is chromium picolinate. The new finding comes from a small clinical trial sponsored by Nutrition 21, which years ago purchased the patent rights to chromium picolinate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
John P. Docherty, MD, president of Comprehensive Neuroscience Inc., White Plains, N.Y., and adjunct professor of psychiatry at Cornell University, penned the report. Docherty presented the findings at the National Institute of Mental Health's annual New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit Conference, held this week in Phoenix.
"It is an exciting finding," Docherty tells WebMD. "The real benefit of this is the high rate of response in this subgroup of depressed patients. If this finding holds up, it is a very important finding for depression. And there was a very, very favorable side effect profile."
Chromium Picolinate's Effects on Metabolism
Chromium picolinate is a nutritional supplement. The "picolinate" part of the compound is thought to enhance the body's ability to absorb chromium. Chromium is a necessary mineral. The typical Western diet barely contains an adequate amount of chromium -- so chromium supplements are quite popular. It's the second most popular mineral supplement in the U.S.
All kinds of claims have been made about chromium picolinate. Few of them are proven. One known effect is the supplement's ability to increase the body's sensitivity to insulin, helping it work better to control blood sugars. It's not clear whether the supplement provides significant help to people with diabetes. A recent analysis of well-designed studies showed that it does not significantly affect blood sugar or insulin levels in people who do not have diabetes.
Depression, Diabetes, and Carb Craving
The most common form of depression, ironically, is called atypical depression. Instead of losing their appetite, people with atypical depression often overeat. Many of these people report an almost irresistible craving for carbs.
When the researchers looked at all the patients -- those with and without carb cravings -- they found no overall depression benefit from the chromium supplement compared to placebo. It did, however, cut carb craving.
But chromium did improve depression in certain patients. Researchers found that atypical depression patients who also had carb cravings improved with chromium compared to placebo.
"In that group with high carb craving -- a third of the patients -- we had a very significant benefit from chromium picolinate," Docherty says. "Compared with placebo, it had a 2-to-1 advantage in reducing depression overall."
Maybe, Docherty speculates, this small study has found the missing link between depression and diabetes.
"This could turn out to be a very big benefit if the relationship between depression and diabetes is mediated by carb craving," he says. "It might be that if you eat more carbs, you tax your insulin system more and are at greater risk for diabetes. This treatment chromium picolinate may lower high risk of diabetes in people with depression. That would be terrific."
Chromium Picolinate for Carb Craving?
It is not clear that chromium picolinate -- or anything else -- can help normal people eat fewer carbs, says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She is also a nutritional consultant for several sports teams and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
"What is carb craving? It would be really difficult to define that," Bonci tells WebMD. "Yes, there are some people who are going to gear more toward the pasta and potatoes than steak and tofu, but that doesn't have a clinical definition. ... It would be a stretch to say that across the board, carb cravers should go with chromium. Bodies aren't that smart. Psychological and environmental factors do a lot more to determine the cravings we have."
On the other hand, Bonci says, the findings regarding insulin sensitivity and chromium picolinate are "exciting." Moreover, she explains, many people do get too little chromium in their diets.
Huge exposures to chromium can be dangerous. But Bonci notes that people who take chromium supplements don't get harmful side effects.