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Cinnamon and Health

Woman smelling cinnamonCinnamon has long been an important component of life, both in cooking and in rituals.

Indeed, cinnamon and its health benefits are part of the medicinal and spiritual lore of many cultures, throughout history and still today.

The use of the spice dates all the way back to Egypt in 2000 AD and probably even before then. The spice was even directly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible multiple times.

Nowadays, we use cinnamon as a spice in a large amount of cooking and baking, and its scent is used in a wide range of other types of products, like body wash.

Even in the modern day, cinnamon is one of the more expensive spices, particularly if you choose to buy it as the bark rather than pre-ground.

Cinnamon is produced from the inner bark of specific species of plant and is frequently sold either as cinnamon sticks (which consists of the bark itself) or as a pre-ground powder.

The trees used to produce cinnamon are bushy and evergreen, typically cultivated in the form of low bushes.

Cinnamon is harvested from Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Cinnamomum cassia and some other varieties, and the spice is the bark from the tree.

However, there is still a significant amount processing involved.

To start off with, the bark first has to be removed from the stems. This can be a challenging task, particularly as the longer pieces of cinnamon tend to be more valuable.

Additionally, the quality of the cinnamon is influenced by how well the bark is removed.

Following this process, the cinnamon is then dried. Typically this occurs in the shade then in muted sunlight.

Different Types of Cinnamon

Historically, there have been four key types of cinnamon and they have often been confused with one another.

All of these come from different plants within the Cinnamomum genus.

Cinnamon GrowingThere are more than 300 different species within this genus and they all have aromatic oils located in their bark and leaves.

Many of these species have economic significance, but only a few of them are used for the cinnamon spice that we are so familiar with.

Understanding the differences between the varieties of cinnamon is important because varieties differ in their chemical composition, which also affects the health benefits associated with them.

The species Cinnamomum vernum is widely considered to be the most legitimate form of cinnamon and is also called Ceylon cinnamon, true cinnamon or Sri Lanka cinnamon.

The names Ceylon and Sri Lanka cinnamon are both references to the fact that the cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka.

However, most of the commercially available cinnamon doesn’t come from C. vernum.

Instead, most of the cinnamon that is sold comes from related species.

Collectively this cinnamon is known as Cassia cinnamon.

The name is related to the species C. cassia, which is a species from the Cinnamonum family that originates in China.

Some of the key differences between this species and Ceylon cinnamon is that Cassia cinnamon tends to have thicker back, which is harder to crush than the bark from C. vernum. This results in a rougher texture than Ceylon cinnamon.

Often the term is also applied to other species of cinnamon from Asia, such as C. loureiori and C. burmannii.

Ceylon cinnamon (left) and Cassia cinnamon (right)
Ceylon cinnamon (left) and Cassia cinnamon (right)

Sticks of Ceylon cinnamon can be visually distinguished from Cassia cinnamon because of the thickness of the two species.

Ceylon cinnamon tends to consist of a large number of thin layers. This makes it easy to turn the stick into a powder.

There are other distinctions also.

As you can see from the image, Ceylon cinnamon tends to have a lighter color overall and is also tightly rolled.

In contrast, the rolling of Cassia cinnamon is looser and the cinnamon itself is darker.

Chemically, the most important distinction between Ceylon and Cassia cinnamon is the level of coumarin.

Both Ceylon and Cassia cinnamon contain the compound, but there is much more present in Cassia cinnamon than in Ceylon cinnamon.

Coumarin itself is a phytochemical that has no significant nutritional benefits.

The significance of coumarin comes from its natural role as a blood thinner.

Because of this coumarin even acts as the basis of the blood thinner medication warfarin.

Blood thinners help to promote circulation in the arteries by making it more difficult for the blood platelets to stick together. So, when a person on blood thinners cuts themselves, they will tend to bleed for longer than someone who isn’t.

There are a lot of advantages of blood thinners, particularly for people dealing with atherosclerosis (congested arteries).

However, if blood is thinned too much it can cause a range of other issues, including the inability for blood to clot at all.

Realistically, it isn’t a good idea to be taking up too much coumarin in your diet because of the blood thinning function.

Bunch of cinnamon sticksIf you do have a health condition where your blood needs to be thinner, then you are probably on medication to do this, and excess coumarin in your body can interfere with that medication in a major way.

This means that you have to be careful about the amount of coumarin that you are taking in.

As such, you should always be looking at choosing Ceylon cinnamon rather than Cassia cinnamon (and there are many great Ceylon cinnamon options to choose from).

Additionally, high levels of coumarin can have negative effects on the function of your kidneys and liver, particularly if you are consuming it long-term.

Now, if you have a little cinnamon on food or in your drinks each day, the type of cinnamon isn’t really something to be concerned about.

However, if you are having a lot of cinnamon choosing to switch over to the Ceylon variety is certainly worth the while.

Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum vernum) is safer and offers more health benefits than Cassia cinnamon

Health Benefits of Cinnamon

Cinnamon has long been used in traditional medicine and is associated with a wide range of health properties (1).

In this section, I will discuss some of these health benefits – specifically the ones that have some scientific evidence behind them.

Cholesterol-Lowering Properties

One of the key health benefits of cinnamon is its ability to lower cholesterol levels (specifically, the levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol) (2).

This function is important for reducing the risk of heart disease and helping to promote a longer life.

An experimental study found that supplementation with 1 g, 3 g or 6 g of cinnamon resulted in a decrease in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in participants with type 2 diabetes (3).

Similar outcomes were also found for a separate randomized controlled study that used a dose of 3 g cinnamon per day for eight weeks (4).

Hand holding cinnamon sticksA meta-analysis of ten separate randomized controlled trials also found that cinnamon was able to decrease cholesterol levels as well as levels of triglycerides (5).

A comprehensive intervention including supplementation with cinnamon was also able to have similar outcomes (6).

This suggests that supplementation with cinnamon may be an effective component of a healthy overall lifestyle and may improve heart health.

Cinnamon can help lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol

Impacts on Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure is a key vital sign and is frequently measured.

High levels of blood pressure are known as hypertension and can be dangerous for your heart health.

This makes it important to take lifestyle approaches to keep your blood pressure low, and cinnamon can potentially help with this.

One meta-analysis considered the impact of cinnamon on blood pressure in patients with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.

The authors found that supplementation with cinnamon resulted in significantly lower blood pressure readings (7).

However, the authors did note that large-scale experimental studies are needed to confirm this finding.

Even though more research is needed, cinnamon appears to be able to lower blood pressure

As an Anti-inflammatory

Inflammation in the kneeAlthough it is rarely studied independently cinnamon does also have an anti-inflammatory role (8,9).

Indeed, this role is one reason why cinnamon is thought to have cancer-fighting properties (10).

The compound cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon is thought to be one of the key elements of cinnamon’s anti-inflammatory ability and does so by decreasing the expression of mast cells, which play a key role in inflammation (11).

This role has also been illustrated by one study that found that the use of cinnamon supplements was able to significantly decrease the level of muscle soreness among female athletes (12).

Cinnamon has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties

HIV

Cinnamon has also been found to have significant advantages for HIV, helping to inhibit the replication of the virus, specifically the HIV-1 variant (13). This is the most common form in humans.

Likewise, cinnamon has been associated with blocking infection of host cells, helping to protect the body and potentially acting as a form of therapy for patients with HIV-1 (14).

This role is likely to be particularly important in the future as there is a growing emphasis on targeting the HIV-1 protease as part of therapy for the virus (15), something that cinnamon is able to potentially play a role in.

Cinnamon can fight against HIV-1, helping the body to protect itself against the virus

Cancer Risk

Research on the ability of supplements to decrease cancer risk tends to be an area with limited research and this is the case with cinnamon.

The vast majority of studies on this topic focus on animal models, often because of the infeasibility of conducting similar studies on humans.

Scientific researchAlternatively, studies may be conducted using human cells but not actually on humans directly.

When studies on humans are conducted, they tend to be observational in nature, which means that they can’t determine cause and effect.

In the case of cinnamon, most of the studies have been conducted in animals.

Nevertheless, there is still some indication that cinnamon may help to significantly reduce the risk of cancer or help to improve cancer outcomes.

One study found that extract from Cassia cinnamon had the potential to activate the antioxidant response in colon cells.

This is an area that is important for the cellular response to colorectal cancer, suggesting that cinnamon may be an important dietary factor for protecting against colorectal cancer (16).

Cinnamon is also considered a chemoprotective agent by virtue of a range of properties, including anti-inflammatory properties, the ability to promote cell death and to inhibit cell growth and division (17).

A specific compound in cinnamon, cinnamaldehyde has also been linked to inhibition of the growth and division of cells and has been found to induce cell death in a strain of human leukemia cells (18).

The same compound has also been linked to inhibition of cell proliferation and the promotion of cell differentiation among lymphocytes (19) as well as inhibition of growth for 29 different types of human cancer cells (20).

The potential for cinnamon to impact cancer and decrease cancer risk comes from multiple interactions in chemical pathways, including those involved in cell death, cell growth (21) and the cell cycle (22).

Cinnamon may play a role in reducing the risk of cancer and even in fighting cancer

Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease

Alzheimer's diseaseCinnamon may play an important role in protecting against key neurological disorders, particularly Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

While studies have not focused on looking for a relationship between cinnamon consumption and disease development, there have been multiple studies that have indicated potential biological mechanisms and key neuroprotective effects of cinnamon.

In a mouse model, cinnamon treatment has been associated with neurological protection, particularly in relation to proteins that offer protection against Parkinson’s disease (23).

Cinnamon has also been associated with neuroprotection during a period of oxidative stress (24).

Likewise, cinnamon has been found to counteract some of the key negative effects from a high fructose and high-fat diet as well as some negative changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease (25).

Furthermore, cinnamon may help to protect against the abnormal modification to the protein tau that plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease development (26), as well as in the way that tau aggregates (27).

Cinnamon has neuroprotective functions that help protect against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease

Potential Health Benefits (Limited Evidence)

As with any type of nutrient, there are some health benefits associated with cinnamon that have not been strongly proven.

In some cases, this might be because limited research has been done on cinnamon and the claimed health benefit.

In other cases, this is because the outcomes of the research have been contradictory.

Ground cinnamon and cinnamon sticksFor example, some studies might find that cinnamon does cause the claimed health benefit while others may find the opposite outcome.

This section focuses on potential health benefits where there simply isn’t enough proof to be certain whether or not cinnamon causes the claimed health benefits.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly believe in providing you will all the information that is out there and letting you use this to make your own decisions.

After all, everyone has different needs and there are many differences in the lifestyles that we all live.

Blood Glucose and Insulin Sensitivity

Some research has indicated that cinnamon is able to influence insulin sensitivity or glycemia (level of glucose in the blood).

This is particularly important for reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes as well as other health disorders.

In some cases, this impact has also been associated with playing a role in treating diabetes or helping diabetics to control their blood sugar better.

This is an area that has been widely studied, but it is also controversial because there are studies in support of this role of cinnamon and other studies that dispute it.

Supporting Studies

The first of these studies used Ceylon cinnamon and conducted tests in rats, as well as a clinical trial of 18 human participants.

The authors found that supplementation with the cinnamon extract was able to reduce the level of postprandial hypoglycemia (i.e. hypoglycemia following a meal) (28).

Cinnamon SticksHowever, the study was limited by its small sample size and its use of a hydro-alcoholic extract from cinnamon. This means that the effects of cinnamon itself may potentially be different.

Another study on the topic considered a range of health outcomes across multiple studies into the health benefits of cinnamon.

In this case, the emphasis was on Cassia rather than Ceylon cinnamon.

Nevertheless, the authors did note that cinnamon improved a number of health markers in patients with diabetes, including improvements in insulin sensitivity (29).

Another study looked at cinnamon supplementation in patients with type 2 diabetes who were not on insulin therapy.

The authors found that supplementation with cinnamon (3 g per day for four months) was able to significantly decrease fasting blood glucose levels in participants (30).

Likewise, a meta-analysis of clinical studies on cinnamon found that cinnamon and/or cinnamon extract was able to improve fasting blood glucose levels across individuals with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes (31).

Another meta-analysis noted the wide variety of studies on cinnamon use and type 2 diabetes but concluded that cinnamon supplementation resulted in a significant decrease in the levels of total cholesterol and fasting plasma glucose (32).

However, the study was unable to find any significant effects on HbA1c levels.

A key meta-analysis took a similar approach to the previous two, but only considered studies that had looked at Ceylon cinnamon, rather than also including those that had considered Cassia cinnamon.

The authors found 16 studies to consider, but none of those were human studies.

The studies did indicate that Ceylon cinnamon supplementation was able to decrease the levels of fasting blood glucose and HbA1c and also improve a range of other health markers (33).

This may be an indication that Ceylon cinnamon could have more significant health benefits than Cassia cinnamon.

However, there remains a need for clinical trials in humans before the effectiveness of Ceylon cinnamon supplementation can be accurately determined.

Animal studies, researchAn animal study was also able to show that cinnamon extract could improve insulin sensitivity as well as lowering levels of liver fat (34).

Another animal study illustrated a possible mechanism for how cinnamon supplementation could decrease hyperglycemia in diabetic rats, through inhibition of an enzyme called α-glucosidase (35).

Inhibition of the pancreatic enzyme α-amylase has also been proposed as part of the mechanism, and research has suggested that cinnamon supplementation can inhibit both of these enzymes (36).

A final interesting study looked at 60 people who had type 2 diabetes.

The study split the participants into six groups. Three of these groups received cinnamon supplements (either 1 g, 3 g or 6 g per day), while the remaining three groups received placebos.

The groups receiving placebos were given the same number of pills as whichever treatment group they were paired with.

After 40 days, participants in all of the treatment groups had lower levels of blood glucose and improved cholesterol outcomes. In contrast, no improvements were observed in the control groups (37).

Refuting Studies

Despite these positive outcomes, other studies have not been able to find benefits of cinnamon for blood glucose levels or insulin sensitivity.

For example, one study looked at Cassia cinnamon supplementation (6 g of cinnamon twice a day) in participants with impaired glucose tolerance.

No significant differences in insulin sensitivity or liver enzymes were found between participants taking cinnamon and control participants (38).

Cinnamon supplementsA broad meta-analysis also considered this issue across ten randomized controlled trials that focused on the impacts of cinnamon supplementation for individuals with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Because the study was a meta-analysis, it considered outcomes across different experimental designs, including different levels of supplementation and different varieties of cinnamon.

The meta-analysis revealed no significant effect of cinnamon on postprandial glucose, HbA1c levels or serum glucose.

There was not enough data for the authors to conclusively find information on whether cinnamon affected insulin sensitivity or the level of fasting blood glucose (39).

The authors of that meta-analysis concluded that there was not enough evidence to support the use of cinnamon as a supplement for people with diabetes.

Similarly, a randomized clinical trial of 70 type 2 diabetes patients failed to find significant impacts of the supplementation on glucose levels of participants after 60 days of supplementation (40).

That study used 500 mg of Cassia cinnamon twice per day for a total of 1 g per day.

Another study used 3 g of cinnamon following a meal and monitored outcomes in the blood.

The authors found that supplementation with cinnamon had no impact on the variables tested, including glycemia (41).

Researchers are split on whether or not cinnamon offers benefits for blood glucose levels or insulin sensitivity

Other Health Benefits

There are also a number of health benefits that have been linked to cinnamon consumption, but many of these potential benefits have not been studied extensively.

1. Menstrual Cycles

Girl with period crampsOne research study indicated that supplementation with cinnamon may play a key role in improving the frequency of menstrual cycles in women who had polycystic ovary syndrome (42).

The study used a randomized controlled trial design where participants received either cinnamon supplements (1.5 g per day) or a placebo for a period of six months.

Following the treatment, the frequency of menstrual cycles was significantly higher in the women from the treatment group compared to those from the control group (43).

2. Intestinal Injury and Inflammation

Cinnamon is also thought to play a key role in protecting against injury and inflammation in the intestines.

This role is one reason that some research has recommended supplementing animal feed with cinnamon.

This benefit may also extend to humans, suggesting that supplementation with cinnamon may help to protect the gut (44).

3. Anti-Microbial Functions

Cinnamon also plays a role as an anti-microbial agent.

For example, cinnamon oil has been found to be an effective way of stopping Candida yeast infections, including strains that are resistant to many forms of medication (45,46).

Because of this, many people link cinnamon to other anti-microbial purposes, including therapy for a stomach bug, for neutralizing odors and as a disinfectant.

It has also been found to be effective at preventing mold and thus can act as a food preservative (47).

However, relatively little research has been done on some of these functions.

Cinnamon may also have many more significant health benefits that are just beginning to be researched

Research

Pile of cinnamonThere have been many different research studies into the health effects of cinnamon across a wide range of different experimental approaches.

One of the major differences across studies is the level of supplementation.

For example, one meta-analysis found supplementation levels ranging from 120 mg per day to 6 g per day, and that doesn’t even count the studies that have used extract instead of cinnamon itself (48).

The differences in approach across research studies have made it difficult for researchers to compare outcomes and determine where cinnamon does have a significant impact on health and where it doesn’t.

For some of the health benefits that I have discussed here, there is strong evidence that cinnamon can offer significant health benefits. In other cases, the evidence is much less clear.

Some research hasn’t focused on cinnamon itself but on products made with cinnamon and their health benefits.

For example, cinnamon chewing gum has been linked to a reduction in the bacteria associated with bad breath (49).

In that study, the authors also found that this effect was only present in gum that contained cinnamon extract while gum with only cinnamon flavoring did not have any antibacterial impact.

This isn’t surprising, as cinnamon has been associated with antimicrobial functioning (50).

Research continues to be ongoing into cinnamon and its health benefits and there may be much more to be discovered

An Unusual Study

Scientific research with microscopeOne interesting outcome from research into cinnamon supplementation was a study on immune system gene expression in rats.

The outcomes of this study were a little different than most other studies, which is why I’m talking about it separately.

In this study, two key variables were considered: the type of diet and whether cinnamon was supplemented.

The two diet types were a normal diet and a high-fat/high-fructose diet.

The latter type of diet is thought to be bad for health because of its effect on the immune system.

This diet is commonly used in animal studies, but it also has implications for humans, particularly as high fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar in many foods.

The authors of this particular study found that supplementation with cinnamon had beneficial impacts on the immune system under the control diet.

However, under the high-fat/high-fructose diet, supplementation with cinnamon actually had negative impacts on health.

This suggests that cinnamon supplementation may be counterproductive for people who have an unbalanced Western diet (51).

This is another indication that having a high-fat and high sugar diet is very bad for human health.

Experiments on animalsHowever, it is important to note that effects in animals do not necessarily apply to humans.

Animal models have many advantages for research, particularly as it is easier to research with animals compared to humans and there is more flexibility what can and cannot be done.

Yet, this approach is also limited, because animals have very different systems than humans.

So, it is very possible that cinnamon supplementation does not have this negative impact in humans, even in the case of an unbalanced diet.

The research simply isn’t there to know for certain one way or the other.

In an unbalanced diet, cinnamon may be detrimental, but the research is still in early stages

Chemistry

One key aspect of cinnamon chemically is the compound cinnamaldehyde.

This compound is responsible for both the odor and the flavor of cinnamon.

This compound may play a key role in many of the health benefits associated with cinnamon.

Cinnamaldehyde is a key compound in cinnamon

Dosing Information

Dosages of cinnamon in research have varied a lot, ranging as high as 6 g per day in some research studies and much lower in others.

Spoon of cinnamonHowever, many studies have ranged between 1 g and 3 g of cinnamon each day.

Roughly speaking, one gram of cinnamon is somewhere between ¼ to ½ of a teaspoon.

To be on the safe side, I would recommend having no more than two teaspoons of cinnamon per day, and to choose the Ceylon variety.

This equates roughly to 6 g of cinnamon per day, which is the highest level that health benefits have been shown at.

As always, you should check with your doctor about what dosage is good for you as this will differ between one person and the next.

Purchase, Storage and Use

Choosing Your Cinnamon

If you are going to take cinnamon for its health benefits, it’s really important to pick your cinnamon carefully.

Not all cinnamon is the same and different choices may have different impacts on your health.

The first thing to keep in mind is to get Ceylon cinnamon rather than Cassia cinnamon.

This can be a bit challenging to work out if you are buying the cinnamon at a supermarket though, because the manufacturers often do not state the type of cinnamon present.

Often, ground cinnamon will contain multiple different varieties of cinnamon, with Ceylon cinnamon just one of these, or not represented at all.

This may make it necessary to look for a reputable gourmet cooking store (or site) or health store.

Cinnamon on oatmealMost of the time, cinnamon that is made using Ceylon cinnamon only will specify this because this acts as a selling point for the product. Additionally, such cinnamon is likely to be more expensive than other cinnamon out there.

If you are unsure, an alternative is to buy the cinnamon in stick form and crush it yourself.

Because you can see the stick, it is much easier to work out which variety you are purchasing.

However, this isn’t the only thing to consider.

Organic Cinnamon

Organic foods are those grown without pesticides, growth enhancers and many other chemicals.

Ideally, organic foods are also grown in fields that have been tested as chemical free.

For some foods, including cinnamon, choosing organic variants is particularly important because of the process of irradiation.

Irradiation uses cobalt and cobalt-60 to kill the microbes on plants.

One issue with this process is that eating high amounts of irradiated foods can potentially have highly significant health impacts. In fact, cobalt-60 itself is actually a radioactive substance.

Furthermore, organic farmers still take pains to ensure that their product is pest free.

The process of irradiation can also have other impacts on cinnamon, including lowering its carotenoid and vitamin C content.

This means that in general, organic cinnamon will tend to be safer and healthier than its non-organic counterpart.

Storing

Cinnamon in a jarTo maintain freshness, cinnamon should be stored in a cool, dry and dark place, in a tightly sealed container (preferably one made out of glass).

Stored this way, cinnamon sticks will stay fresh for roughly a year while ground cinnamon will stay fresh for around six months.

You can also store cinnamon in the fridge to help it last longer.

It is easy to tell the freshness of cinnamon simply by its aroma.

When cinnamon is fresh it has a sweet smell, while this smell is lost as the cinnamon becomes staler.

In Closing

Cinnamon might be a very common household spice, but most people never think of its wider implications for health.

Yet, having some cinnamon every day does offer significant health benefits, including helping to lower cholesterol, improving blood pressure, acting as an anti-inflammatory agent and reducing cancer risk.

Plus, it really isn’t that difficult to include a teaspoon or two of cinnamon in your diet every day.

Cinnamon teaFor example, some people choose to make a cinnamon-based tea on a daily basis, which can actually taste really good.

Other common uses include using cinnamon to flavor coffee or hot chocolate with cinnamon or sprinkling cinnamon on oatmeal. There are also many recipes out there that rely on cinnamon, such as these 12 sweet cinnamon recipes from Serious Eats.

Cinnamon isn’t just limited to sweet foods or drinks.

It also makes a good addition to dark sauces in cooking. This produces a flavor that is a little unusual, but very nice. The site Mind Body Green also highlights a range of ways to use cinnamon in dinners.

You can also get cinnamon supplements, but you still need to make sure it is Ceylon cinnamon.

Ultimately, how you include cinnamon in your diet is up to you, but taking the time to do so is certainly worth the effort.

Want to Improve Your Health?

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What about you? Do you use cinnamon for its health benefits? What’s your favorite way of using the spice?

 

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