This common and amazing spice was first grown in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and was imported to Egypt, the Mediterranean world and Europe as early as 2000 BCE. Spices like cinnamon, that we take for granted, were great luxuries in times past; they were used for flavoring, to prevent food spoilage, and for treating many ailments. Cinnamon was found to inhibit bacterial growth in stored food, which was very useful before the days of refrigeration.
Blood Sugar lowering: Currently, the interest in cinnamon centers on its role in lowering blood sugar. A study in normal subjects from the University of Lund in Sweden showed that adding cinnamon to a meal significantly lowered blood sugar an hour later, and also delayed stomach emptying. A study from the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center (US Department of Agriculture) on men and women with type 2 diabetes showed that cinnamon (given as 1, 3, or 6 grams daily in capsules) significantly reduced fasting blood sugar, LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides. This is important, as people with type 2 diabetes have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The results from 1 gram of cinnamon were effective, and this amounts to about 1/5th teaspoon per day. Cinnamon had a sustained effect on levels of blood sugars and fats, even if not consumed every day. The authors of this study note that a number of other herbs have been reported to yield blood-sugar lowering effects in patients with diabetes: bitter melon, Gymnema (see below), Korean ginseng, onions, garlic, and flaxseed meal. The authors write that cinnamon may work by increasing glucose uptake by cells and activating the synthesis of glycogen ( a normal storage compound for glucose). Also, cinnamon is believed to stimulate cell receptors for insulin.
Gymnema sylvestris is an herb from India where it has been used to treat diabetes since before modern medicine. It curbs sugar cravings, and may also stimulate insulin secretion. It is available in the U.S. (online and in some natural food stores) as a supplement. Not enough is known about its side effects and dosage levels, so people who use it should work with their health-care practitioner. It should not be used in pregnancy or at the time of any surgery.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a disorder associated with infertility in women, who also have multiple cysts on their ovaries, elevated glucose, weight problems, excess body hair and menstrual irregularities. A study was published in 2007 from Columbia University showing that oral cinnamon (1 gram daily) improved their glucose levels. More studies are underway using cinnamon for this condition.
Brain chemistry: A professor of psychology at Ohio Northern University found that students scored higher on attention, memory and visual-motor response speed when smelling cinnamon or chewing cinnamon-flavored gum.
How much is enough? There is concern that a substance called coumarin in cinnamon may be toxic to the liver in certain sensitive individuals. Liver damage is reversible if cinnamon is stopped. Since the genetics of this potential problem is not worked out, it is prudent to use cinnamon as a spice rather than in large doses. People with diabetes should talk to their doctors or nurse practitioners about using 1/5th teaspoon a day on oatmeal, baked apples or other foods, in case their need for medications decrease. Other people can continue to use cinnamon sensibly on favorite dishes and enjoy the wonderful flavor of this spice.
I have enjoyed reading Healing Spices by Bharat B. Aggarwal as a takeoff for this column on cinnamon. Aggarwal is a molecular biologist and cancer researcher at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas in Houston. Look for a wonderful collection of spices at the Bolinas People’s Store, or at most natural food stores. Leave me a comment, or a question!
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH back issues on this blog.