You can’t open magazines, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at the moment without being told about how eating some wondrous superfood will be the cure to every health problem known to man. These headline grabbing stories claim that all you need to do is eat these every day foods, drinks and spices and you’ll live a disease-free, medical drug free life. At best these articles are interesting, but at worse they are misleading and can be dangerous. Claims that turmeric, coconut oil and hemp oil are cancer cures, cashew nuts are better than antidepressants, raisins will detox your liver – the list is endless. There are many reports of people abandoning medical treatment in favour of some of these super-foods, often with tragic consequences. However there is often also a little truth behind these claims, so I thought I’d take a closer look at a common spice, which has been claimed to help treat cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, even HIV and delve a little in to the science behind it to provide you with some reliable information.
Cinnamon is a spice I absolutely adore – on my coffee, in my morning smoothie, sprinkled over stewed apple, in biscuits… any way at all! It’s been prized for its medicinal properties for thousands of years and there are also some really interesting scientific studies out there about its effects. So I thought I would share some pretty cool cinnamon facts with you.
What is Cinnamon?
Cinnamon is actually the inner bark of the Cinnamomum tree which is a type of Laurel that grows in tropical regions of the world from South America to South-east Asia. The inner bark is harvested, allowed to dry and then sold as sticks or ground in to a powder. The majority of commercial cinnamon comes from Sri-Lanka and Indonesia.
Cinnamon has been traded around the world since as early as 2000 BC, when it was imported in to Egypt. It has been so highly prized that it was considered a gift fit for Kings, and even Gods. It is still prized today though it is decidedly more common!
There are many varieties of cinnamon but the two main types are Ceylon cinnamon or “true “ cinnamon, and Cassia cinnamon which is the cinnamon you generally find in the shops. Both taste the same but the Ceylon cinnamon has a slightly more delicate flavour. It’s usually available in health food shops and if you have the choice it’s definitely worth buying.
The distinct smell and flavour of cinnamon is due to a compound which both varieties contain called cinnamaldehyde and it’s this compound that is also responsible for the medicinal effects of cinnamon.
Why is it so good?
Well firstly, cinnamon is packed with antioxidants, specifically polyphenols. Antioxidants are great as they protect the body’s cells from oxidative damage due to free radicals. In a study that compared the antioxidant activity of 26 spices, cinnamon was found to have the greatest antioxidant capacity, even outranking so called “superfoods” like garlic and oregano (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry). Cinnamon has also been shown to be so powerful that it can be used as a natural food preservative.
Cinnamon also has anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation in the body isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s a protective mechanism which helps the body fight infection and repair tissue damage. But it can be a problem if it becomes long term (chronic) or if it is directed against the body’s own tissues. The antioxidants that are so prolific in cinnamon are extremely good anti-inflammatories and studies have shown it can help to reduce muscle soreness in female athletes so is a great option for including in your post-workout shake (find my favourite recipe here). It may also be helpful for those suffering from arthritis.
Heart Disease and Diabetes
Cinnamon has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes, one of the world’s most common causes of premature death. A study of people with type-2 diabetes showed that 1g of cinnamon per day reduced levels of serum glucose, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol in the blood, whilst levels of HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) remained the same and didn’t reduce. This suggests inclusion of cinnamon in the diet of people with type-2 diabetes may reduce the risk factors associated with diabetes and heart disease. A large review study concluded that an even smaller dose of just 120 milligrams of cinnamon per day can have the same effects (Annals of Family Medicine). In this study cinnamon also increased levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol. Studies in animals have also linked cinnamon consumption to a reduction in blood pressure, though this is yet to be tested in humans. Overall though this suggests that adding cinnamon to your diet could cut some of the main risk factors for heart disease which is definitely a good thing.
Insulin is a key hormone for regulating the metabolism and for energy use in the body. Its main role is involved in the transfer of blood sugar from the bloodstream into the cells. Many people are, however, resistant to the effects of insulin. Insulin resistance is one of the symptoms of conditions such as type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Studies have shown that consumption of cinnamon extract by people with metabolic syndrome improves fasting blood glucose, systolic blood pressure, percentage body fat and increased lean body mass compared with the placebo groups. This suggests (and test tube studies confirm this) that cinnamon can help insulin to do its job and reduce blood sugar levels.
As well as reducing blood sugar through affecting insulin resistance, cinnamon also affects blood sugar in other ways. It has been shown to decrease the amount of glucose that enters the bloodstream after a meal. It does this by slowing down the breakdown of carbohydrates, through interfering with the digestive enzymes. In addition, a compound in cinnamon (a hydroxychalcone) acts as an insulin mimic and encourages cells to take up more glucose from the blood itself. Both these combined mean glucose uptake is improved and blood sugar levels are stabilised. Many human studies have demonstrated that cinnamon has anti-diabetic effects through lowering fasting blood sugar levels up to 29% (European Journal of Clinical Investigation). What’s great about cinnamon is that it is also generally very well tolerated and so is something that is easy, and pleasant to take. These data suggest that cinnamon could really help those with type 2 diabetes to assist in controlling blood sugar levels. It’s important though to realise that taking cinnamon doesn’t replace standard forms of management – such as insulin therapy, antidiabetic agents and lifestyle changes and the dose required is quite high, up to 6g per day (2 tsp), BUT what it can do is help and it certainly won’t do any harm.
What about other conditions?
Well cinnamon has been shown to have a beneficial effect on some neurological conditions. Diseases which cause progressive loss of the structure or function of brain cells are known as neurodegenerative diseases. Two of the most well-known are Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Although human studies have not been extensively trialled yet, studies in animals have shown that compounds in cinnamon seem to inhibit the build-up of a protein called “tau” in the brain, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s and can lead to an improvement of the symptoms associated with this build-up. In a study looking at Parkinson’s in mice, cinnamon helped to protect neurons, improve motor function and normalise neurotransmitter levels (Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology). These studies are very recent, only 2014, and much more investigation need to be done in humans, but it’s certainly promising.
Cinnamon and Cancer
One of the hallmarks of cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. One again studies are limited to in vitro (test tubes) and animal studies but they suggest that cinnamon extracts may protect against cancer. These studies have shown that it reduces the growth of cancer cells, and the formation of blood vessels in tumours (which in turn inhibits growth). It also appears to be toxic to cancer cells, causing them to die. A study in mice with colon cancer specifically revealed that cinnamon (and cardamom) activated “detoxifying” enzymes in the colon (known as GST – glutathione S-transferase). These naturally occurring enzymes target and breakdown environmental and other toxins from outside the body including drugs, pesticides, carcinogens etc. By activating them in mice with colon cancer cinnamon protected against further growth of the cancer. This has been further supported by test tube experiments showing that cinnamon activated a protective antioxidant response in human colon cells. This means there could be tremendous potential for cancer treatment and prevention with cinnamon and its extract. Of course whether it works in humans is another matter but it’s looking good so far and more studies are taking place all the time.
Cinnamon as an anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal agent
Cinnamaldehyde has been shown to inhibit both bacterial infections and fungal infections. A study in the journal “Allergy” showed that cinnamon oil was very effective at treating respiratory tract fungal infections. It’s also been shown to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria, including Listeria and Salmonella (American Journal of Chinese Medicine).
Cinnamon oil has also been shown to be more effective than clove oil in inhibiting the pathogens (bacteria and yeast) involved in tooth decay (Journal of Pharmacy Research). It also helps to reduce bad breath by reducing the number of anaerobic bacteria in the mouth (which release sulphur compounds that produce the bad breath smell) (Journal of Clinical Dentistry).
There is also evidence in test tube trials of human cells that cinnamon can help to inhibit HIV infected cells. A study investigated 69 medicinal plants and cinnamon was found to be the most effective (Indian Journal of Medical Research and Current HIV Research). It was also shown to block entry of HIV into healthy cells (journal of Antiviral Chemistry and Chemotherapy). Much more research needs to be done but once again cinnamon shows promise.
So there you go…
So there you go – that’s why we need a little more spice in our lives! It seems that some of those amazing claims about cinnamon may well be true – at least on some level and all in all Cinnamon seems to be a pretty good thing to include in your diet. So load it up – add a tsp to your coffee, or sprinkle it on top of your cappuccino instead of chocolate, stir in to your porridge, add to your smoothies or include in your desserts and baking (it’s divine sprinkled on top of nut butter spread on toast!). You can even use it in savoury dishes like chilis. There’s a fab little infographic below with ideas for using the cinnamon sticks and there are lots of recipes that use it, so do check them out on the Pure Form Fitness blog, and for baked goods check out Pure and Simple Bakes. Enjoy!