The story of cinnamon begins about 4,000 years ago when it was first mentioned in Chinese botanical texts. Egyptians later used cinnamon for embalming and to prevent food spoilage. During the Middle Ages, it was thought that cinnamon's strong aroma would fight off the bubonic plague. (It didn't.) In the 15 th century, trade wars were fought over access to this treasured spice. The explorations of Vasco da Gama to India and Christopher Columbus to the new world were motivated by the ongoing search for new sources of cinnamon and other sought-after spices of their time.
Cinnamon is made from the dried inner bark of an evergreen tree that grows in tropical areas of the world: India, Brazil, the West Indies and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).
One of the world's most widely used digestive aids, cinnamon has a reputation for relieving intestinal gas and flatulence. Other traditional applications include soothing peptic ulcers, relieving menstrual cramps and fighting fungal infections.
Several years ago researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture began looking at the potential effects of different spices on blood sugar levels. They found cinnamon was the most bioactive in stimulating cells to use sugar and identified a group of water-soluble substances, polyphenol polymers, that have the ability to increase the metabolism of glucose in vitro by as much as 20 times. These antioxidant compounds and the body's own insulin combine to lower blood sugar levels.
Numerous studies have validated cinnamon's effectiveness in supporting glucose metabolism.
A USDA cinnamon study involved 60 men and women, all with Type 2 diabetes, whose fasting insulin levels ranged from 140- to 400-milligrams/deciliter. After 40 days, the three groups taking cinnamon capsules at varying doses all had reduced fasting serum glucose levels. A fourth group, taking a placebo, had no changes. In the cinnamon group, fasting glucose levels decreased by up to 29 percent, cholesterol declined up to 26 percent and triglycerides fell by as much as 30 percent. The benefits continued for 20 days after the cinnamon was stopped.
Researchers concluded that cinnamon in the diet could reduce the risk factors associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Cinnamon may also be valuable for non-diabetics to prevent and control elevated glucose and blood lipids and as a potent thermogenic agent for weight loss programs.
A clinical study published in Diabetes Care, a journal of the American Diabetes Association, suggests taking 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon after eating lunch and again after dinner to assist in lowering blood sugar levels. In this study, people with Type 2 diabetes also had significant reduction in cholesterol, triglycerides and serum glucose.
Apparently, a little bit of cinnamon goes a long way. Even just stirring a cinnamon stick in tea or sprinkling the spice on food makes a difference. Taking more does not seem to increase its benefits. Since those benefits appear to be long lasting, it may not be necessary to consume cinnamon every day. And for convenience, concentrated forms of cinnamon are available in capsule form.
And don't forget dessert. Consider the American favorite, apple pie. Researchers were surprised to find much lower than expected blood sugar levels after people had eaten apple pie, but only if it was spiced with cinnamon.
The information in this article is for educational purposes. Consult your physician if you have a medical condition.
Margot Bennett is a licensed nutritionist at Mother Nature's Pantry, located in the Garden Square Shoppes, 4513 PGA Blvd. in Palm Beach Gardens. Call her at (561) 626-4461.