When it comes to herbs and spices like cinnamon, the internet can get feverish with dietary recommendations. But what does the research say? Would adding cinnamon to your diet have an impact on your blood glucose levels? Let’s take a look.
How does the body process blood glucose?
Glucose is also known as blood sugar. Our body depends on glucose to keep its mechanisms functioning efficiently, giving us the energy to go about our day-to-day activities. Our glucose levels often go unnoticed when they are at their ideal levels. However, when they stray from recommended boundaries, our normal functioning is affected. Glucose is a simple sugar, making it a monosaccharide, a subcategory of carbohydrates. It consists of only one sugar. In addition to fat, glucose is the preferred source of fuel for the body, in the form of carbohydrates. Bread, fruits, vegetables and milk are good sources of glucose. There is a complex system in place for keeping glucose within a healthy range, metabolising it into fuel or storing it for later use. Insulin plays a crucial role in this process.
Health benefits of cinnamon
One of the most popular aromatic spices across the world, cinnamon is harvested from the bark of various types of Cinnamomum trees. The bark is peeled and dried in the sun where it curls into rolls, familiar to us as cinnamon sticks. The medicinal value of cinnamon has been well documented in traditional systems of medicine, such as Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and Western Herbalism, for digestive, respiratory or gynaecological problems. Now that modern science is starting to examine the therapeutic properties of herbs and spices, it may be well worth exploring the benefits of cinnamon for our health. But before that, we must differentiate between the types of cinnamon and their effects on health.
The two most common types of cinnamon we come across are Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum Verum) grown in Sri Lanka, and C. cassia, C. loureiroi and C. burmannii, communally known as Cassia and produced in China and Indonesia. Cassia has a stronger flavour and is available at a much lower cost, and therefore is considered a pantry staple in most households. However, it’s the expensive Ceylon variety, which has a milder, sweeter flavour, that’s best for health. What’s more, a study conducted in Germany found 63 times more coumarin—a plant compound that damages the liver—in cassia cinnamon powder than Ceylon powder. There are also other factors such as location, soil, growing conditions and how the spice was dried and stored, that go on to affect the product. According to Lauri Wright, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, scientists have experimented with dosage, species and compounds of the spice for their research, and doses and duration of usage varies greatly. So even with proven positive results, there isn’t a way to determine the correct compounding and usage to ensure safety—something to keep in mind as we go over some of the major health benefits of cinnamon.
After eating, blood sugar levels rise. Insulin released by the pancreas helps the cells to absorb blood sugar for energy and storage. With this absorption, glucose levels in the bloodstream begin to decline. The pancreas then produces glucagon, a hormone that prompts the liver to release stored sugar. This interaction of glucagon and blood sugar ensures stable blood glucose levels in the body and the brain.
Antioxidants are powerful compounds that lower the risk of chronic diseases and protect the cells against free radicals that are produced when the body breaks down food or when it is exposed to tobacco smoke or radiation. Cinnamon is packed with powerful antioxidants, such as polyphenols, to the point that it can be used as a natural food preservative. In a study that compared the antioxidant activity of 26 spices, cinnamon was the unrivalled winner, outdoing even ‘superfoods’ like garlic and oregano. Cinnamon also contains flavonoids like quercetin that reduce inflammation. While inflammation is a natural immune system response, it can lead to arthritis and heart conditions when it becomes chronic. In a 2020 analysis, a daily dose of 1.5 g to 5 g of cinnamon powder was found to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker in inflammation.
Lowering blood glucose
A study found that cinnamon taken in small doses lowered blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. According to Lauri Wright, the strongest evidence in favour of cinnamon’s health benefits lies in its promise of blood sugar control. Studies in test tubes, mice and even smaller studies in people show that cinnamon helps with insulin sensitivity and glucose transport while reducing inflammation.
How does cinnamon impact blood glucose levels?
Cinnamon may help lower blood sugar by imitating the effects of insulin and increasing glucose transport into cells. It also increases insulin sensitivity by decreasing insulin resistance at a cellular level, which improves insulin’s efficiency in carrying glucose to the cells.
Oxidative stress is a disturbance in the balance between the production of free radicals (which fight pathogens that cause infections) and antioxidants (which stabilise the reactive nature of free radicals and bring about harmony). Extreme fluctuations in blood sugar levels, such as after a big meal loaded with carbohydrates, can increase oxidative stress and inflammation, and eventually, put the body at risk for chronic disease. Cinnamon keeps this rise in check by slowing the breakdown of carbohydrates in the digestive tract.
There are several other factors that contribute to glucose variability, including poor diet, infections, tumours and conditions like diabetes and cancer. Monitoring and managing these glucose fluctuations can help prevent oxidative stress and its long-term effects on the body.
Cinnamon’s effects in decreasing oxidative stress, which is implicated in nearly every chronic disease including type 2 diabetes, has therefore been promising. This study showed that consuming 500 mg of cinnamon extract daily for 12 weeks decreased a marker of oxidative stress by 14% in adults with prediabetes.
Improving gut health
The prebiotic properties in cinnamon promote the growth of ‘good’ bacteria and help suppress the growth of pathogenic bacteria. So including cinnamon in your diet may help improve gut health.
Improving cardiovascular health
Cinnamon has been linked with preventing heart disease and improving overall cardiovascular health by lowering total cholesterol, LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides while maintaining stable levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol.
Cinnamaldehyde, which we’ve already seen, and epicatechin, a powerful antioxidant also present in blueberries, chocolate and red wine, offer some protection against oxidative stress that leads to the development of dementia. A study found a component of Ceylon cinnamon to have the same effect.
Meanwhile, cinnamon is also being tested for its effects against HIV. One study found that some flavonoids present in cinnamon blocked the virus from entering and infecting certain brain cells. However, Lauri Wright, who also specialises in nutrition for infectious disease at the University of South Florida, cautions patients to rely on medication that has been tried and tested and to always ensure there are no conflicts with additional supplements.
That’s not all. Ceylon cinnamon has also shown cancer-fighting properties in rodents. According to biochemist Stockert, cinnamon may be as effective as resveratrol, an antioxidant known for its disease-fighting properties, and in activating SIRT-1 which is also known as the longevity gene because of its role in repairing DNA. While research is still in its early stages, in some cases, cinnamon did better than resveratrol, which could be hugely promising for fighting cancer.
Preventing multiple sclerosis (MS)
Cinnamon has been tested for activity against multiple sclerosis and the results look hopeful.
This study in mice found that cinnamon could have an anti-inflammatory effect on the central nervous system, including parts of the brain. People with MS have lower levels of T cells or ‘Tregs’ than those who are healthy. The study also found that cinnamon treatment prevented the loss of certain proteins specific to Tregs.
The NCCIH is supporting more research into how cinnamon may help treat MS.
Cinnamon has been a popular spice for centuries, across traditional systems of medicine all over the world. With modern science beginning to confirm many of these widely-held beliefs about cinnamon’s role in improving gut health, lowering cardiovascular disease and healing fungal infections, as well as new findings particularly in lowering blood sugar levels and in type 2 diabetes, and cancer research, HIV, dementia and multiple sclerosis, we may have only scratched the surface of cinnamon’s medicinal value. Experts believe cinnamon’s role in lowering blood sugar and managing glucose variability is probably the most promising of cinnamon’s benefits so far. However, since research is still in its early stages, experts continue to caution against taking cinnamon supplements to treat medical conditions without guidance from a healthcare professional. With that said, we can make the best of this highly versatile, nutrient-loaded spice by incorporating it into our meals.