|AN INTRODUCTION TO CINNAMON
With all of the spices available to humans, it may come as no surprise that
one of the most pleasantly fragranced is also one with the most health benefits.
Cinnamon, a lovely reddish brown powder for sprinkling on toast or a small,
tightly wrapped piece of bark for stirring tea, has the power to do more
than spice up our lives- it also has the power to assist in a variety of
health issues like high cholesterol, diabetes and even cancer.
So what is it about cinnamon that makes it special, aside from its near
universal use in baking? Let's take a look at where it all began for some
HISTORY OF THE 'SWEET' SPICE
The first mention of cinnamon, also known as cassia, sweet wood and Gui
Zhi, is in Chinese texts dating some 4,000 years ago. It is also interesting
to note that during that time it was used primarily as a medicine, rather
than for flavor. The ancient Egyptians used the oil from the spice's distilled
bark and leaves for embalming, and were the first to add it to food-again,
not for flavor, but to discourage spoiling. Its first uses in medicine
can actually be traced to the Middle Ages when the bubonic plague raged
through Europe. Sponges were soaked in the cinnamon and cloves, and placed
in the rooms of the sick. The hope was that the strong aroma would kill
the bacteria. It may have had the opposite effect, however, in actually
attracting more of the rodents that were responsible for the outbreak.
Keep in mind that leeches were also used during this time. Modern medicine
still had a long way to go!
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, cinnamon inspired the journeys
of Vasco De Gama to India and Christopher Columbus to the New World, and
it was burned as incense because its rich aroma was found to stimulate
the senses while also calming nerves. Its historical uses vary from culture
to culture, with many ancient texts, including those of Native American
Indians, citing its use in the treatment of diarrhea, chills, the flu,
rheumatism and even certain menstrual disorders. Cinnamon bark was rubbed
on the torso to eliminate rashes, and twigs from the cinnamon tree were
used to treat ailments of the fingers and toes, including arthritis and
athlete's foot. Success was so sweet that herbalists have long used the
crushed bark to make a 'fortnight' brandy, again for medicinal purposes.
Amazingly, cinnamon, which comes primarily from the bark of small evergreen
tree indigenous to Southeast Asia, also functions as a purifying rinse
for dark hair, as a toothpaste flavoring to help freshen breath, in massage
oils, and to help beautify the skin, promoting a healthy-looking complexion.
All this and cookies, too! It's hard to believe that one spice can be
responsible for so much internal and external good health, but research
shows that it's true.
Recent studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition
and Research Center have found that cinnamon also significantly reduces
blood sugar levels in diabetics. Not bad for a spice as old as time itself.
THE CINNAMON-DIABETES LINK
When you eat, the sugars and starches you consume are broken down by the
body into a substance called glucose, which circulates through the blood
stream to be used for energy, or if not used, turned into fat. Insulin,
a hormone manufactured by the body, is what allows blood cells to absorb
the glucose. If your body doesn't produce enough insulin, you may have
type-1 diabetes. If your body produces insulin but doesn't use it properly,
you have type-2 diabetes. That may seem like an overly simplified description
of diabetes. It is, however, useful when it comes to understanding how
a lack of insulin can lead to serious long-term health issues and how
diabetes can cause irreversible damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves, and
There is also a condition known as pre-diabetes or syndrome X, in which
a person's blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough
for a diagnosis of type-2 diabetes.
In short, insulin resistance increases your risk for diabetes because
of something known as metabolic syndrome.
According to the National Library of Medicine, metabolic syndrome is a
"compilation of factors characterized by insulin resistance and the
identification of three of the five criteria of abdominal obesity, elevated
triglycerides, decreased high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, elevated
blood pressure, and elevated fasting plasma glucose."
In fact, approximately 47 million Americans live with metabolic syndrome,
a condition that is directly related to a 61 percent increase in obesity.
This also appears to correlate to an emerging health epidemic for women.
What to do? How about a little cinnamon?
DIABETES AND CINNAMON
A study from the Human Research Center of the USDA and the University
of California, Santa Barbara, suggests "this remarkable spice can
improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism and potentially counter
or reverse the course of obesity" and other health issues like diabetes.
Cinnamon, it seems, has an active ingredient that is a water-soluble polyphenol
compound known as MHCP. This compound appears remarkably similar to insulin,
working alongside and in conjunction with real insulin inside of blood
cells. Think of it as a nurse assisting a doctor. Together, the cinnamon
compound and the body's own insulin combine to lower blood sugar levels.
In fact, when volunteers were given three to six grams of cinnamon powder
a day, blood sugar levels were an average of 20 percent lower. Some actually
achieved normal blood sugar levels. Metabolism also seemed to increase,
thus helping the body to convert sugar into immediate cellular energy
rather then ending up as "stored" potential energy in the form
of fat deposits.
The discovery was initially made by accident, by Richard Anderson of the
USDA Human Nutrition and Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. "We
were looking at the effects of common foods on blood sugar," he told
New Scientist's online news service in an online report published November
24, 2003. "One was the American favorite, apple pie, which is usually
spiced with cinnamon. We expected it to be bad, but it helped."
According to New Scientist, in the test tube experiments, MHCP mimics
insulin activates its receptor, and works synergistically with insulin
To see if it would work in people, Alam Khan, who was a postdoctoral fellow
in Anderson's lab, organized a study in Pakistan. Volunteers with type-2
diabetes were given one, three or six grams of cinnamon powder a day,
in capsules after meals.
All responded within weeks, with blood sugar levels that were on average
20 percent lower than a control group. Some even achieved normal blood
sugar levels. Tellingly, blood sugar started creeping up again after the
diabetics stopped taking cinnamon.
The cinnamon had additional benefits, according to the online report,
"In the volunteers, it lowered blood levels of fats and 'bad' cholesterol,
which are also partly controlled by insulin. And in test tube experiments
it neutralized free radicals, damaging chemicals which are elevated into
A clinical study published in Diabetes Care, a journal of the American
Diabetes Association, suggests taking the equivalent of a half- teaspoon
of cinnamon daily- split into two parts (a quarter teaspoon per serving)
right after eating a lunch and dinner in order to assist in lowering blood
sugar levels. In their study, people with type-2 diabetes also had significant
reductions in cholesterol, triglycerides and serum glucose.
Cinnamon, as it appears, also helps to neutralize free radicals. It provides
anti fungal and