We usually think of cinnamon as a sweetly fragrant powder that is sprinkled on buttered toast or is simmered with apple cider and cloves on a cold and wet December. Readily found in kitchens all over the planet, cinnamon is so common that it is easy to take it for granted.
Cinnamon has been around for a long time, with references dating back to 2800 B.C. The ancient Egyptians used this spice in medicinal preparations and is part of the embalming process. Highly valued by early Persian emperors, cinnamon remained a precious commodity through the Middle Ages. Believe it or not, this ancient spice was, at one time, more valuable than gold and played such a major role in world trade that wars were fought over it.
So, what exactly is so special about this spice?
A Blood Sugar Regulator
As it turns out, this standard table condiment contains chemicals that might offer significant benefits for millions of people with high blood sugar resulting from type 2 diabetes. A group of researchers from the Human Nutrition Research Centre were investigating the effects of common foods on blood sugar when they discovered that the combination of apples and cinnamon significantly blunted the expected rise in blood sugar from eating the pie.
Over the next few decades, a slew of test-tube experiments followed in which fat cells were exposed to related chemicals extracts from cinnamon, as well as a number of other medicinal plants and spices. Based on these experiments, researchers were able to identify some water-soluble substances called polyphenolic polymers, which has the extraordinary ability to increase the metabolism of glucose in vitro by approximately 20 times. Polyphenols are a well-known group of plant-derived chemicals, but this is the first time they had been shown to directly affect blood sugar.
Further investigation found that one of the most potent of these compounds, methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP), enhanced the effect of the hormone insulin. Fat, muscle and liver tissue all need insulin to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. By stimulating the enzymes in cells involved in insulin’s action, MHCP and its related polyphenols are able to make insulin work more effectively.
Beneficial for Type 2 Diabetes
All of these laboratory research may be fascinating, but the ultimate question is: Can cinnamon do anything for humans?
The answer lies with a group of medical researchers from Harvard University who conducted a clinical study in Pakistan involving 60 middle-aged subjects with noninsulin-dependent type 2 diabetes. These 60 subjects were given either capsules containing various amounts of cinnamon or inert placebo after meals. All of the subjects taking cinnamon experienced a significant drop in blood sugar of about 18 to 29%, depending on the dosage. It was a stark contrast for the other placebo group of subjects where no significant change was recorded.
Not only did cinnamon lower blood sugar in the study, but it also dropped blood levels of harmful LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. The remarkable finding was that it only took about 1 gm a day, which is equivalent to the amount you would normally get in half a tablespoon of powder, to achieve those effects. Amazingly, all of the benefits seen in the study lasted up to 20 days after the cinnamon was stopped.
Hold on, we are not done yet, it gets even better. Excessive consumption of fructose, especially high-fructose corn syrup, has been singled out by a number of nutritional experts as a potential culprit in our current epidemic of obesity and diabetes. One of the problems with fructose is that it can interfere with the actions of insulin inside of cells, resulting in resistance to insulin. A recent animal study from Japan found that cinnamon extract may help reverse this detrimental effect.
How to Incorporate Cinnamon into Your Diet
There are two ways to get cinnamon into your diet. You can either use the spice or take cinnamon capsules, which are now available in selected health stores. Cinnamon is a completely safe and nontoxic spice when it is consumed in reasonable amounts. A person with type 2 diabetes only needs to take half a tablespoon a day of cinnamon to benefit them from its blood sugar- and cholesterol-lowering properties. For capsules, follow the label instructions or consult your regular doctor or physician.
Even a swirling cinnamon stick in a cup of tea appears to have measurable benefits. Larger amounts do not appear to be more effective in controlling blood sugar. However, since cinnamon also contains potent antioxidants and antibacterial properties, there remains a possibility that increasing the dose could be helpful in other ways — the antibacterial property of cinnamon has been proven to be effective in eliminating bacteria which increases acne. Some health experts pointed out that cinnamon is likely to help when it is part of a healthy diet rather than flavouring for candy or dessert.
Fortunately, eating or drinking cinnamon does not cause hypoglycaemia (abnormally low blood sugar), so it can be enjoyed by diabetics and nondiabetics alike, just as it has been for thousands of years.