Is there magic in cinnamon?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2009

Buzzfoods abound these days and cinnamon is one of the most popular. It has joined açai, pomegranate and a score of others whose health benefits have tended to be ignored by mainstream medicine. But in fact, some scientists are taking a hard look at them in case herbalists, native healers and similar non-traditional practitioners might be onto something.

Ancient Egyptians and Romans claimed that cinnamon soothed the stomach, improved appetite and relieved arthritis — and that's only a partial list of benefits that have accumulated over several millennia. Cinnamon-takers report relief of menstrual problems, stomach ulcers, heartburn and yeast infections.

In the past few years interest in cinnamon increased after studies showed that it reduced cholesterol in some individuals and it lowered blood sugar (glucose) in persons with type 2 diabetes.

Like many spices, the pungent aroma, deep color and sharp flavor of cinnamon give a hint that it might be rich in antioxidants. The color clue is a reliable one. Bright-colored pomegranates, sweet peppers, chili peppers, red wine and dark chocolate live up to the promise of being antioxidant-rich. These naturally occurring free-radical fighting substances number in the thousands and their health benefits, though individually small, add up. It's for that reason that nutritionists urge us to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.

A few studies have shown that cinnamon does lower blood glucose in some persons with diabetes but the total number of subjects is small. Other studies have shown no effect. The same is true in the matter of lowering cholesterol; contradictory results and small numbers of patients make it impossible to suggest that we should all enjoy a daily dose of cinnamon.

Research on cinnamon in rodents and in cell cultures shows enough promise to keep scientists on the trail. In the laboratory, at least, this ancient spice makes insulin work better, it keeps cancer cells from multiplying and it suppresses the bacterium that is associated with stomach ulcers.

Wherever medical research uncovers a possible cure for anything, expect the entrepreneurs to find a way to market the magic. When resveratrol, one of the antioxidants in red wine, showed some healthy effects on blood vessels it didn't take long for resveratrol tablets to appear in retail stores and on the Internet. You can find cinnamon tablets there, too. In spite of convincing anecdotes neither resveratrol nor cinnamon tablets have a proven track record.

A few individuals are allergic or sensitive to cinnamon, which can cause a variety of rashes around and within the mouth.

We can no more expect cinnamon to protect us from diabetes than we can depend on a daily glass of red wine (in which the amount of resveratrol can vary by a factor of about 20) to keep us from that first heart attack. By all means, enjoy a little of both, along with about an ounce of dark chocolate every day. But make sure that you get plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables at every meal. And don't forget that hour of exercise!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.