CINNAMON – THE HEALTH BENEFITS*
Cinnamon is a spice, one of the oldest known. For many centuries, it has also been used for its medicinal properties. Known from remote antiquity, it was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift ‘fit for monarchs and even for a god’.
It is obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum. Cinnamon trees are small and are native to India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam and Egypt. In 2006, Sri Lanka produced 90% of the world’s cinnamon. The name cinnamon comes from Phoenician through the Greek kinnamomon, meaning sweet wood.
To prepare it, only the thin inner bark of the cinnamon tree is used. The outer, woody portion is discarded, leaving long cinnamon strips that curl into rolls, called quills, on drying. The quills are cut into 5 to 7 centimetre sticks. Cinnamon can also be dried and ground into a powder.
The characteristic flavour and aroma of cinnamon comes from a compound in the essential oil of the bark called cinnamaldehyde. This essential oil makes up 0.5% to 1% of cinnamon’s composition. The pungent taste and scent come from cinnamaldehyde, which is about 60% of the oil.
There are a number of varieties of cinnamon, the most well-known being Sri Lanka or Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia or Chinese cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is sometimes called ‘true cinnamon‘. It is more expensive and has a sweet taste. The quills are softer and easily ground to powder. It is typically sold in speciality stores. Most cinnamon as sold in supermarkets is the less expensive variety, Cassia cinnamon. It has a darker colour and the quills are harder and more difficult to grind to powder.
Uses of Cinnamon
1) For Flavouring and Aroma
The most common and best known use of cinnamon is as a spice. It is principally used in cooking as a condiment and flavouring material. As a flavouring agent it is used in soft drinks, teas, and bakery products such as cereals, granola bars, puddings, pastries, cakes etc. Cinnamon is often added to toast, hot chocolate, tea or coffee. It is a common ingredient in many Indian curries. It is also an ingredient in many medicinal formulas to improve the taste and aroma of the medicine. Cinnamon is also used in the perfume industry.
2) Medicinal Uses
The medicinal properties of cinnamon were utilised by ancient health practitioners such as Dioscorides and Galen in their various treatments.
In medieval times, cinnamon was an ingredient of medicines for sore throats and coughs.
In traditional Chinese medicine and in Ayurveda, cinnamon has been used to treat indigestion, intestinal cramps, nausea and diarrhoea, and to improve appetite. It is also believed to improve energy and vitality.
Properties of cinnamon, aside from its flavour and aroma, are those of an antioxidant, fungicide, antibacterial agent, insecticide, preservative and embalming agent. These properties are attributable to the oil fraction.
As a fungicide, cinnamon has shown an amazing ability to stop medication-resistant yeast infections. It is therefore useful in the treatment of candidiasis caused by the yeast Candida albicans.
It is also said to be effective in the treatment of Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium linked to stomach ulcers.
Cinnamon has an anti-clotting effect on the blood due to the presence of a component called coumarin. Unlike Cassia cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon has negligible amounts of coumarin.
It is a natural food preservative. When added to food, it inhibits bacterial growth and food spoilage.
The available clinical trials of cinnamon, or its aqueous extract, are comprehensively summarised in a recent publication by Dr B. Qin and co-workers (Journal of Diabetes and Science Technology, 2010; 4(3): 685-693). This review focuses on the evidence and mechanisms whereby cinnamon prevents insulin resistance, the metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is associated with insulin resistance, elevated glucose and lipids, inflammation, decreased antioxidant activity, increased weight gain and increased glycation of proteins (see my September 2008 newsletter Metabolic Syndrome). Cinnamon has been shown to improve all of these variables in vitro, and in animal and human studies. Relatively small amounts (about 5g) can produce measurable effects on acute metabolic parameters. The dominant metabolic effects of cinnamon are from the aqueous polyphenolics and antimicrobial effects of the oily components. The Qin paper leads into how the metabolic effects of cinnamon might influence a number of pathogenic mechanisms and pathways, principally, but not only, relevant to diabetes and cardiovascular mechanisms. These include inflammation, generation of AGEs (advanced glycation end products) and growth factor modulation affecting vasculature and angiogenesis (associated with the proliferation of cancer cells) and neurodegeneration. Cinnamon has been shown to alleviate factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease and polycystic ovary syndrome.
For medicinal purposes, 5 grams per day is recommended. It is claimed that one teaspoon (5g) contains as many antioxidants as a full cup of pomegranate juice and a half cup of blueberries.
Safety of Cinnamon
Cinnamon is essentially safe to take, but care should be exercised when it is used by diabetics and those on anti-clotting medication.
Those people who are taking diabetes medication or any other medication that affects blood glucose or insulin levels should not take therapeutic doses of cinnamon without professional supervision. This is because taking the two together can have an additive effect and cause the blood sugar levels to drop too low.
Cassia cinnamon contains coumarin, and at high levels, coumarin may damage the liver.
As indicated above, Cassia cinnamon also has a blood thinning effect, so Cassia cinnamon should not be taken by people taking anti-clotting medication.
In general, the health effects of herbs and spices have been undervalued.
There is a several thousand year history of cinnamon use by the human race. It is enjoyed as a spice and flavour, it has contributed to food safety with few if any adverse effects.
Cinnamon has a real potential to be used for its known health benefits.
*Copyright 2011: The Huntly Centre.
Disclaimer: All material in the huntlycentre.com.au website is provided for informational or educational purposes only. Consult a health professional regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations expressed herein, with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.
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