We’re entering the holiday season, which always makes me think of warming spices like cinnamon. The smell and flavor of cinnamon are due to an oil called cinnamaldehyde, which comprises about 90% of cinnamon’s essential oil.
Cinnamaldehyde is believed to be the source of cinnamon’s spectacular array of health benefits. It can be found in both types of cinnamon (Ceylon and Cassia), though depending on which of the two you use, there are some caveats to be aware of.
Two Types of Cinnamon
Ceylon cinnamon is considered the “real” cinnamon, whereas Cassia is what is found in most grocery stores today, because it’s cheaper. The problem with Cassia is that it contains a much higher amount of a potentially toxic substance called coumarin.
This isn’t an issue if you’re using cinnamon sparingly, but large amounts (more than 1 teaspoon per day) of Cassia cinnamon might lead to liver toxicity and damage from the coumarin content.
If you keep your upper limit under 1 tsp per day, or if you purchase Ceylon cinnamon online, you can avoid this pitfall. Fortunately, even half a teaspoon of cinnamon per day is sufficient to realize some of the benefits of cinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon, Blood Sugar, and Insulin
Perhaps cinnamon’s best known health property is its ability to regulate blood sugar. It does this via two main mechanisms of action:
- It slows the release of carbohydrates into the bloodstream.
- It acts as an insulin mimetic, thereby decreasing circulating glucose by getting the glucose into your cells quicker.
These effects can lower fasting blood sugar by up to 29%! To put this in context, the popular Diabetic drug Metformin lowers fasting glucose by an average of 25%.
Cinnamon, Cholesterol, and Triglycerides
Of course, glucose and cholesterol go together, which is why abnormalities in both are part of the Metabolic Syndrome picture. Accordingly, cinnamon is helpful for lowering triglycerides and cholesterol as well.
This study shows that even consumption of half a teaspoon (one gram) of cinnamon over a period of 40 days was sufficient to drop triglycerides up to 30%, and LDL (“bad” cholesterol) by up to 27%.
Cinnamon as an Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory
Oxidative damage can trigger immune system activation and therefore chronic inflammation, so I will group these two functions together. Cinnamon is full of polyphenols, which are potent antioxidants. What this means: they can quench free radicals (or unpaired electrons) that might otherwise cause inflammation, like pouring water on a fire.
In fact, this study pits the antioxidant activity of cinnamon against that of 25 other spices, including garlic and oregano, and cinnamon came out on top. And this study directly demonstrates cinnamon’s anti-inflammatory properties.
Cinnamon as a Neuroprotectant
Since Alzheimer’s is now being called “Type 3 Diabetes”, cinnamon’s effects on blood sugar alone might indicate that it could have neuroprotective effects for Alzheimer’s. But this study also shows that cinnamon directly inhibits the buildup of tau proteins in the brain as well.
And in this Parkinson’s study, cinnamon is shown to improve movements by balancing neurotransmitter levels.
There are some animal-only studies so far suggesting that cinnamon might have anti-cancer properties as well. Given the breadth of different health benefits, and ease of access, it seems like a good idea for all of us to incorporate more cinnamon into our diets!
Some of the studies went above the daily recommended limit of a teaspoon to avoid coumarin toxicity, however. So either cap it at half a teaspoon daily if you’re using Cassia cinnamon, or purchase Ceylon cinnamon instead.