Cinnamon: The super antioxidant-rich disease-fighting spice

Did you know that more herbs are among the foods with the highest antioxidant value?

It’s true.

A food’s antioxidant value is indicated by its Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity — or ORAC value — a measurement developed by the National Institutes on Aging at the National Institutes of health.

Let me start by giving you a comparison of the antioxidant strength of some common herbs…

Direct measurements of phenolic contents and antioxidant capacity of 26 spice extracts were compared and the spices with the highest antioxidant capacity of those studied were:

  • Clove in the Myrtaceae (myrtle) family which also includes guava, allspice, and eucalyptus
  • Oregano in the Labiatae family which includes mint, dead nettle, and the herbs basil, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, hyssop, thyme, and lavender; and
  • Cinnamon in the Lauraceae (laurel) family

Let’s look closer at cinnamon…

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Cinnamon for blood sugar control

We know that cinnamon is loaded with powerful antioxidants such as polyphenols.

How does this translate into health and healing? Let me give you a few examples.

In one study, researchers tested cinnamon supplementation in diabetic rats. They measured their body weight, glucose, insulin, liver glycogen, glycosylated hemoglobin (HgbA1C), total cholesterol, triglycerides, and antioxidants (such as glutathione) and compared them against a diabetic control group.

After 28 days, the diabetic rats given the cinnamon extract (Cinnamomum tamala) showed significant decrease blood glucose, HgbA1C, and total cholesterol compared to controls. In fact, supplementation had antidiabetic effects comparable to glyburide, a prescription medication commonly prescribed for diabetes in humans. You should be aware that glyburide may also come with up to 47 adverse side effects.

What’s more, they found the diabetic rat subjects had significant measurable antioxidant activity (decreased malondialdehyde and increased electrically reduced glutathione). In summary, cinnamon extract has significant antidiabetic, hypolipidemic, and antioxidant activity.

In humans, we see similar beneficial effects of cinnamon. For example, in a small (30 men, 30 women) placebo-controlled study on type 2 diabetes, subjects consumed 1, 3 or 6 grams of cinnamon daily for 40 days.  All three levels of cinnamon reduced fasting blood glucose (18-29%), triglycerides (23-30%), LDL-cholesterol (7-27%), and total cholesterol (12-26%), and there were no significant changes among those in the placebo.

Cinnamon and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases are characterized by progressive loss of the structure or function of brain cells. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are the two most common types of neurodegenerative diseases today.

We have known for years that cinnamon can protect us from developing neuroinflammation, and more recently cinnamon extract was shown to significantly reduce already diseased nerve cells in vitro (the lab). Cinnamaldehyde was the most potent of the active cinnamon compounds.

Furthermore, two compounds found in the spice appear to inhibit the buildup of the tau protein in the brain, which is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

A study in mice with Parkinson’s disease cinnamon was found to protect neurons, normalize neurotransmitter levels and improve motor function.

Extensive research from 2000 to 2011 indicates that supplementation with spices such as turmeric, red pepper, black pepper, licorice, clove, ginger, garlic, coriander, and cinnamon is proven to target inflammatory pathways, and shown to prevent neurodegenerative diseases. But when it comes to studies on people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, I am a bit baffled as to why scientific publications continue to tell us we need well-designed studies on cinnamon and other spices in neurodegenerative diseases to be done in humans.

For example, a 2013 review of 734 articles in the scientific literature on cinnamon extract reported “minimal toxic and adverse effects” along with the following benefits:

  • anti-microbial and anti-parasitic activity
  • lowering of blood glucose, blood pressure, and serum cholesterol
  • anti-oxidant and free-radical scavenging properties
  • inhibition of tau aggregation (hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease)
  • inhibitory effects on osteoclastogenesis (osteoporosis)
  • anti-secretagogue and anti-gastric ulcer effects
  • anti-nociceptive (pain) and anti-inflammatory activity
  • wound healing properties, and
  • liver protective effects

They (annoyingly) conclude, “However since data on humans are sparse, randomized controlled trials in humans will be necessary to determine whether these effects have public health implications.”

Meanwhile, my Harvard colleagues aren’t too keen on the spice. They have posted an editorial with a picture of cinnamon rolls (inflammatory food, very poor example of cinnamon supplementation) entitled, “Can cinnamon be used to treat Parkinson’s disease? Probably not.”

But authors, even as recently as 201,7 conclude, “Spices… may provide more than just flavors, but as agents that may prevent or even halt neurodegenerative processes associated with aging.”

The catch about the health benefits of cinnamon? Getting “true cinnamon,” which is not what you typically find in the spice brands found at your grocer. Look on the ingredients list for Ceylon or Sri Lankan cinnamon. You can read more about why that’s important here.

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Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.