November 28, 2007

Health Benefits of Cinnamon

Health Benefits of Cinnamon

Cinnamon…common, comforting, homey. Who would have thought it could be so good for you?

What is Cinnamon?
Cinnamon is the bark of one of a group of trees belonging to the same family. There are many related species marketed as cinnamon. “True cinnamon” is from Sri Lanka and is more delicate tasting than what is commonly sold as cinnamon in the US, which is also called “cassia” or “Chinese cinnamon”. Cassia has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. There are many other species of cinnamon, mainly from Asia and Madagascar. Cinnamon “sticks” or “quills” are rolls of dried bark, and can be grated into a powder or soaked in liquid. Most people buy cinnamon pre-ground.

Cinnamon Nutrition
Would you believe that a mere teaspoon of cinnamon contains 28 mg of calcium, almost one mg of iron, over a gram of fiber, and quite a lot of vitamins C, K, and manganese? It’s true! It also contains about half a gram of “usable” (non-fiber) carbohydrate.

Health Benefits of Cinnamon
In traditional medicine, cinnamon has been used for digestive ailments such as indigestion, gas and bloating, stomach upset, and diarrhea.

More recently, modern medical research has turned its eye on cinnamon and is coming up with some intriguing results. It has a mild anti-inflammatory effect. It also slows the spoiling of food (which is probably related to why it was used as an embalming agent in ancient Egypt), and has anti-fungal properties as well.

In one fun (but unpublished) study, researchers found that sniffing cinnamon resulted in improved brain function – subjects did better on memory and attention tasks when taking whiffs of cinnamon as opposed to other odors or no odor. However, the potential health benefits of cinnamon that have received the most attention have to do with its effects on blood glucose and cholesterol.

Cinnamon May Improve Type 2 Diabetes and Insulin Resistance
This is the news that is most exciting for people who respond to low carb diets, since most (or at least a substantial percentage) of us are probably insulin resistant or diabetic. There have been several studies which show improved insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control by taking as little as ½ teaspoon of cinnamon per day. Improving insulin resistance can help in weight control as well as decreasing the risk for heart disease, so this has a lot of people very interested. To be fair, a recent study showed no effect, so these results are definitely preliminary, but evidence is accumulating. Along with the improvement in blood sugar, these studies have documented improvements in triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.

Adverse Reactions
In “normal uses” in cooking, etc, cinnamon is unlikely to cause problems in non-allergic people, and up to ½ teaspoon at a time are thought to be safe. People attempting to take more as a supplement should be aware of the following: Most negative reactions are in the form of skin rashes, or irritation to the tissues of the mouth or stomach. Cinnamon has a mild anti-clotting effect in the blood, which could be beneficial, but it is conceivable that too much could cause bleeding problems, especially when combined with medications which “thin the blood”, including aspirin. In traditional medicine, high doses are not given to pregnant women, due to possible stimulating effects on the uterus.

Selection and Storage of Cinnamon
Basically, you’re looking to buy it fresh and keep it fresh. Most large grocery stores have a rapid turnover of cinnamon, so you don’t really need to worry. Once home, it is best stored in a dark, cool, dry place. Cinnamon sticks can keep for 2-3 years this way, but powdered cinnamon will gradually lose its flavor, and is best used within six months. (It isn’t bad for you after this time, just less fresh-tasting.) If you want to try a fun array of different cinnamons, try a specialty spice shop such as Penzeys.

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