One of the homiest flavor combinations in American cuisine is the combination of apples and cinnamon. Still, cinnamon has been around for far longer than the discovery of the new world.
Cinnamon has been used in medicine all across the world for thousands of years, especially in countries like India. In fact, cinnamon has also been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease -- the most common cause of premature death in the world.
Cinnamon is a sharp spice that has many natural active compounds such as cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, and cinnamate. Some of the most common health benefits of cinnamon include the ability to help soothe redness and swelling, oxidation, pathogens, lipid management, heart health, and neurological health.
The main variety is ceylon cinnamon, a sweet, subtle flavor, which comes from Sri Lanka. The other is Cassia cinnamon, which has a stronger potency for savoury dishes. However, it is important to note that not all types of cinnamon are created equal. Coumarin, a compound found in the Cassia cinnamon variety, is believed to be harmful in large amounts.
Let’s take a deep dive into some of the health mechanisms of the active ingredients of cinnamon.
Metabolic Health Mechanisms
Metabolic health is primarily centered on the absorption and interaction of biomolecules from the diet. Insulin is a signaling molecule that creates these effects more dramatically than nearly any other molecule due to its regulatory control of many signaling cascades in the human body.
Insulin is produced by the beta-cells of the pancreas in response to the glycemic level of food -- in other words, the amount and ease of sugar to digest.
When insulin is constantly put into the bloodstream cells tend to react less and less to its effects by the downregulation of insulin receptors on the face of the cell, amongst other mechanisms.
One example: more insulin will be required to push harder against the gradient when stores are complete, as in the case of enlarged (not necessarily amount of) fat tissue. By increasing insulin sensitivity, cinnamon can lower blood sugar levels.
In people with type 2 diabetes, 1 gram (half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon) a day has been shown to have beneficial effects on blood markers -- reducing levels of total cholesterol. This means the “good” HDL cholesterol will remain stable while the “bad” LDL cholesterol levels are reduced.
Excess insulin is increasingly being identified as one of, if not the main contributor to many chronic conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Excess oxidation
Studies have shown that cinnamon can act similarly to insulin in the human body and increases glucose uptake in the body.
For example, in one study, researchers gave cinnamon to an experimental group. They found those readings taken from this group were, on average, 20% lower blood sugar levels than those in a control group.
Another study showed that cinnamon methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP) enabled many of the insulin pathways on its own, in the absence of insulin.
A cinnamon compound, cinnamaldehyde, was shown to be correlated with a decrease in plasma glucose and triglycerides while also increasing HDLc and hepatic glycogen levels.
Also, more research on another cinnamon compound found the exact change in clinical values. The literature has supported the use of cinnamon to reverse various clinical metabolic values, including blood glucose and lipids.
However, it is still unclear what effects this may have on the underlying mechanisms. More research is needed.
The brain only uses energy through glucose and not through other ketogenic bodies, so the importance of having continuous glucose and oxygen provisions through consistent blood flow to the brain is paramount. The deprivation of these nutrients to the brain can cause permanent long-term damage if not treated.
Cinnamophilin, another cinnamon-derived compound, has been shown to reduce the negative effects of this deprivation to the nerve tissue through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Cinnamon’s role in bolstering neurological function in patients suffering from various neurological diseases is also an area of study.
Cinnamon upregulates various neurotrophic factors through metabolite sodium benzoate, which has been shown to protect proteins found in neurons from oxidative effects that would otherwise progress neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's Disease.
Oxidative stress occurs when molecules become oxidized, losing an electron. This happens due to normal body function and is one of the key components in aging. When these oxidized substances are formed, they can be dangerous to the body, reacting with otherwise stable molecules and compromising the integrity of some cells.
Substances that tend to donate hydrogen molecules can reduce the oxidized molecules back to their normal state before they dish out too much destruction. Typically these compounds are phenols, but others have this property as well.
Compounds with this quality are called antioxidants. Cinnamon is one such antioxidant.
Several studies have shown that extracts of cinnamon bark are great at scavenging free radicals ( oxidized compounds) and have been shown to reduce the rate of oxidation in the first place.
Cinnamon has also been shown to have a targeted effect on the free radicals DPPH and ABTS but also on hydroxyl and superoxide radicals as well. In fact, cinnamon was shown to have a greater impact on free radicals than 25 other spice extracts in another study.
Inflammation is the recruitment and work of lymphocytes in one area of the body. Whether from injury, infection, autoimmune attack, or other causes, inflammation can be irritating and may prolong the healing process in some cases. Therefore, the use of herbs to mitigate inflammation is not an uncommon practice.
Research has looked at the healing properties of spices from various countries, including South Africa, Italy, Sweden, China, Kenya, and some countries in Central America, to name a few. Many of these countries have been shown to use cinnamon and, upon researching its effects.
One important inflammatory marker is the NF-κB is a transcription factor. Nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-κB) is made by the body in response to inflammatory cytokines (a communication molecule), stress, high glucose, stress, pollutants, and smoke, bacteria, ultraviolet light, etc. Once it is made, it associates with genetic material to produce many inflammation factors.
One specific variant of NF-κB is TNF-α (Tumor necrosis factor-alpha). It is directly linked to many chronic and tumor-related conditions, including allergies, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, and many more.
The inhibition of these nuclear factors by cinnamon, more specifically 2′-hydroxycinnamaldehyde and other variants of cinnamaldehyde, has been shown to alleviate some of the inflammatory effects and additional burdens that may be brought on by NF-κB through the suppression of gases like nitric oxide that upregulate the production of NF-κB, but also through the reduction in NF-κB itself.
Cinnamon has been a staple part of ancient medicine and is a popular part of culinary creations across many cultures. There are many active compounds in cinnamon that give this spice its medicinal qualities especially in the areas of immune, metabolic and neurological health.
Research about the effects of cinnamon has covered both its preventive and interventive uses, finding benefits for both scenarios for many health mechanisms. Consider incorporating cinnamon into your diet and reap the therapeutic rewards for doing so.
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