About 60% of the world uses traditional medicine that is derived from plants. Cinnamon is a perfect example of one of these traditional medicines. It has interesting roots too (pun intended). Let’s get into everything you need to know about cinnamon, as well as some things that might surprise you!
A brief history of cinnamon
Did you know that cinnamon is the 2nd most popular spice in the U.S. and Europe? It is only 2nd to something you find on most tables, whether at home or while dining out: black pepper. Pretty impressive right?! The history of cinnamon goes back pretty far. It’s an aromatic spice that has been used in ancient Egypt since 2,000 B.C. Ancient Egyptians even used it for religious practices and embalming. In fact, it was once considered to be more valuable than gold! Imagine that! Hundreds of years later in medieval times, cinnamon was being used for religious rites and for flavoring. It was also used by doctors to treat conditions like: coughing, arthritis, and sore throats. Cinnamon was used for food preservation as well.
Where does cinnamon come from?
Cinnamon is native to the countries of Sri Lanka, India and Myanmar. However, it is also cultivated in South America and the Caribbean. It comes from the bark of trees in the Cinnamomum family. Cinnamon trees can grow as tall as 60 feet. Cinnamon contains ½ – 1% essential oil and is high in fiber and calcium.
Types of cinnamon
There are several different types of cinnamon sold in the U.S. They are usually categorized into 2 different types though: ceylon and cassia. Ceylon is also referred to as true cinnamon. It is the more expensive type. It is also healthier. Cassia is the cheaper type and is found in most foods that contain cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon has a milder flavor than cassia cinnamon. This is because it contains less cinnamaldehyde, an essential oil compound which gives cinnamon its unique taste and flavor. (It typically contains between ½ to 1% of this compound). These 2 types of cinnamon have different ratios of essential oils. On the other hand, cassia cinnamon has more of a pungent flavor.
While both types of cinnamon are safe to eat, ceylon cinnamon has significantly less potential to cause you harm if you add cinnamon to food or beverages. Cassia cinnamon has higher amounts of something called coumarin. This can cause undesired health effects. For example, taking too much cassia cinnamon could lead to: liver damage, a higher risk for cancer, risk for allergies, interactions with other drugs you might be taking, mouth sores, reduced blood pressure (if it’s already on the lower side), and respiratory issues that can interfere with breathing. The key is to be aware of which one you’re ingesting, whether in spice form or supplement. Adults should consume no more than 1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon per day. That amount may be less for children. Although ceylon cinnamon contains much less coumarin, it should still only be used in moderation to help avoid potential side effects.
Antioxidants and free radicals
On a positive note, cinnamon contains lots of antioxidants. These are natural or synthetic substances that may prevent or delay cell damage from free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules. They are naturally formed while exercising and when the body converts food into energy. Our bodies can be exposed to free radicals from many sources. For instance, air pollution or sunlight. This can cause oxidative stress which can trigger damage to cells. It is believed that oxidative stress plays a role in a wide range of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and eye diseases. Antioxidant molecules counteract the effects of oxidative stress. This is why fruits and vegetables tend to be the cornerstone of a healthy diet. They are rich sources of antioxidants.
The study of cinnamon
There are many different studies on cinnamon. One study found that women with polycystic ovarian cancer had a significant increase in antioxidant levels in their blood after taking it for 8 weeks. Another study shows that cinnamon can help lower blood pressure in a relatively short period of time in those who are prediabetic or have type 2 diabetes. Believe it or not, but cinnamon can also affect cholesterol levels. A meta-analysis of studies showed that it lowered total cholesterol, as well as bad cholesterol (known as LDL, or low density lipoprotein). LDL is a major cause of heart disease. It’s what’s behind most cholesterol buildup and blockages in the arteries.
Cinnamon and blood sugar
Plants have traditionally been used to help people manage health issues. But can cinnamon lower blood sugar too? It sure can. Cinnamon helps address blood sugar issues as it plays an important role in the regulation of blood sugar. For example, a meta-analysis of 10 research studies found that cinnamon caused a significant decrease in fasting blood sugar levels after use of a certain amount over a 4 month period.
So how does cinnamon lower a1c?
Cinnamon seems to lower blood sugar in one of 2 ways. It does this by either mimicking insulin, or by increasing its effectiveness. As a refresher, insulin is a hormone that you need to survive. It helps blood sugar enter into our body’s cells so that it can be used for energy. Insulin also alerts the liver to store blood sugar to be used later. When blood sugar enters our cells and its levels decrease in the blood, insulin decreases too. Lower insulin levels signal the liver to release blood sugar that is stored. This occurs so that energy is available when we need it, even if we haven’t eaten in a while.
Cinnamaldehyde is active at multiple levels of the insulin-signaling pathway, increasing insulin sensitivity. Cinnamon may also slow down digestion by inhibiting certain intestinal and enzymes in the pancreas.
Cinnamon and diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is the most common metabolic disease on the planet. Estimates suggest that 366 million people could become diabetic by 2030. That’s a lot of people! Evidence shows that cinnamon provides glucose regulation. However, it is not definitively known whether cinnamon controls type 2 diabetes. Some studies show that it helps, while others don’t show a benefit. The problem is that there are many different types of cinnamon (within the 2 main types mentioned above). Different studies study different types of cinnamon so it’s hard to tell what’s what.
What else can cinnamon do?
Cinnamon is currently used to improve fungal infections, decrease blood sugar levels, prevent: Alzheimer’s disease, HIV, multiple sclerosis, cancer; decrease the effects from high fat meals, treat and heal chronic wounds, reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, etc.
With benefits like these, it’s probably not a bad idea to add cinnamon to your foods (in moderation of course). Fortunately, it’s a versatile spice that can be added to most foods. Here are a few ways you can add cinnamon to your diet.
- Add cinnamon to your smoothies
- Put cinnamon in your coffee using these tips to help it mix well
- Add cinnamon to your tea or drink cinnamon tea
- Sprinkle cinnamon over sweet potatoes, butternut squash or other roasted vegetables
- Add cinnamon to your yogurt
- Pour cinnamon over cereal
- Sprinkle cinnamon over a banana
- Blend cinnamon into applesauce
- Sprinkle cinnamon over granola
- Season your soups with cinnamon
- Sprinkle cinnamon on French toast or pancakes
How else can you incorporate more cinnamon into your diet? Please tell us in the comments…