The internet and social media can be funny things. It seems that at some time or another a subject gets into the spotlight and everyone writes, or at least rewrites, about it. Cinnamon is not exempt from this and I still remember the flurry of memes and inspirational quotes about it plastered on every social media channel that I follow. According to some of these memes the humble Cinnamon is supposed to help us with weight loss by regulating insulin and on top of that it is said to have anti-aging properties. For totally selfish reasons I felt curious to find out more about this and reviewed a number of research papers reporting. This is what I found out.
First of all cinnamon is obtained from the bark of trees belonging to the Cinnamomum genus native to East Asia. There are several variations but they can be narrowed down to two sub-groups: CinnamomumVerum (aka “true cinnamon”) and Cinnamomum Cassia (the common spice sold in supermarkets all over the world). When the trees are harvested the stems must be processed immediately and the outer bark separated from the inner bark while it’s still wet. As the bark is drying naturally it starts to curl up and is eventually chopped into sticks and sold.
According to a meta study carried out at the University of California in 2010(4) “Cinnamon is a rich botanical source of both Chromium and polyphenols that has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and has been shown to affect blood glucose and insulin signaling”. High fasting blood glucose levels are a typical tell tale sign of Type 2 diabetes which is caused by poor insulin sensitivity.
Other studies have shown that the Verum genus is richer in beneficial nutrients than the more popular Cassia variety however the latter is richer in the compound coumarin that acts as a blood thinning agent akin to some stroke prevention drugs. For this reason, consumption of cinnamon in high doses is slightly concerning however, despite the lack of studies on the long-term effects of consuming cinnamon, this spice has been used by humans for thousands of years without any knowledge of any adverse effects.
A study conducted on a small group of healthy human subjects(1) showed that after adding 3g of cinnamon to their daily diet cellular glucose uptake was increased whereas a long-term study of non-diabetic women with polycystic ovary syndrome showed a significant reduction in insulin resistance after taking 1 g cinnamon per day for 8 weeks before an oral-glucose-tolerance test was performed. A further study conducted in Pakistan(2) showed that by feeding 1g, 3g, and 6g of cinnamon daily for 40 days to a group of men and women with Type 2 diabetes resulted in lower levels of fasting glucose, triglyceride, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol (the subjects of the study were receiving oral blood sugar lowering treatment). However the same results were not experienced by overweight, post menopausal women with Type 2 diabetes.
The conclusions of the meta study mentioned above(4) were that cinnamon whether used as a straight powder or as an extract does indeed seem to have a modest effect in lowering fasting blood glucose levels in individuals suffering from Type 2 diabetes. Surprisingly, this effect is comparable to that of the more famous drug metformin with cinnamon showing a slightly stronger effect overall.
At the point in time when the meta analysis was carried out there was still a fair bit to learn about the “why it worked” in the way it did. A study subsequently conducted in Japan(3) on live rats with Type 2 diabetes set out to investigate the mechanisms by which Cinnamon is effective on regulating blood sugar levels. For the purpose of the experiment the researchers prepared a Cinnamon Extract by boiling some Chinese Cinnamon sticks for 30 minutes. The study was successful in explaining the mechanisms that make cinnamon useful in managing Type 2 diabetes, however these are extremely complicated and unnecessary for the purpose of this blog (plus, admittedly, I barely understand them as I am not medically trained).
What to make of all this information?
The main issues with regards to all these studies on the effects of cinnamon on insulin management and levels of fasting blood glucose are that some have used natural cinnamon, others have used a cinnamon extract obtained in different ways, whereas others have used standardised extracts isolating the active components and nobody quite knows where the cinnamon came from in the first place or what genus was used, how it was dried, and so on. In some instances participants were already taking blood glucose lowering medications which makes it difficult to extrapolate any significant data as the medications may have well masked the effect of the natural product.
Finally, although there seems to be an almost unanimous agreement across most researchers that cinnamon does improve insulin sensitivity we must remember that most studies were carried out over a short period of time and on small numbers of human participants at any one time whose history of medications and lifestyle habits aren’t always described and taken into account. Even by “combining” the results as part of the meta study the sample is still minute and it’s therefore hard to know whether the same findings could really be applied to the World population at large.
Other interesting findings about the effects of cinnamon are that it appears to be beneficial in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and also in cases of ischemic stroke by blocking cell swelling(5). Again, despite the lack of clarity in the materials available, it appears that nevertheless cinnamon is also useful in bringing about small improvements in body composition, with tackling metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
Should you have a go at using cinnamon or not?
In my opinion, if you suspect you may have insulin sensitivity issues you should consult a doctor to have blood tests done and not rely on a blog post to solve your doubts. Depending on the results, if they are normal and you suspect a bit of foul insulin play in your efforts to lose fat then it might be worth seeing if, over a period of time and with everything else remaining the same, cinnamon is the key to your fat loss success. The doses in the studies were between 1 and 6g of cinnamon/cinnamon extract. The best results were given by using 3g per day (which is a lot of cinnamon) taken with sugary foods. Higher doses haven’t shown a bigger effect so it’s best to stay on the safe side and not go over 3g. By the way, insulin resistance tends to show up as “love handles” so if you can’t bear the thought of taking regular measurements around key points on your body, pinch yourself around the hips from time to time to measure your progress. It’s not scientific nor accurate but it will give you a sense of whether anything is changing or not.
If, however your blood test results show that you are above the normal range and tending towards developing diabetes you must discuss your next step with your doctor. Bearing in mind that cinnamon has been proven to be as effective as metformin there is no harm in mentioning this to your GP or specialist. Chances are that if you are just borderline outside of normal he or she might agree to check your blood again in a couple of months time giving you the chance of adjusting your diet and lifestyle accordingly before prescribing you drugs. The time in between blood tests would be a good time to also experiment with cinnamon knowing that you will have tangible proof either way in a short period of time. Remember: the first study showed an improvement in fasting blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity after only 40 days.
Last, but certainly not least if you are also a bit vain, the same mechanisms that make cinnamon a valuable tool in maintaining our health also facilitate collagen biosynthesis(6) in our skin thus providing an important anti-aging service!
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- Hlebowicz J, et al. “Effects of 1 and 3 g cinnamon on gastric emptying, satiety, and postprandial blood glucose, insulin, glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide, glucagon-like peptide 1, and ghrelin concentrations in healthy subjects.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(3):815–821
- Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan MM, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. “Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes.” Diabetes Care 2003;26:3215–8
- Shen Y, Honma N, Kobayashi K, Jia LN, Hosono T, Shindo K, et al. (2014) “Cinnamon Extract Enhances Glucose Uptake in 3T3-L1 Adipocytes and C2C12 Myocytes by Inducing LKB1-AMP-Activated Protein Kinase Signaling.” PLoS ONE 9(2): e87894. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087894
- Paul A. Davis and Wallace Yokoyama. “Cinnamon Intake Lowers Fasting Blood Glucose: Meta-Analysis”, Journal of Medicinal Food. August 2011, 14(9): 884-889. doi:10.1089/jmf.2010.0180.
- Qin B, Panickar K and Anderson R.A. “Cinnamon: Potential Role in the Prevention of Insulin Resistance,
Metabolic Syndrome, and Type 2 Diabetes”. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2010
- Takasao N, et al., “Cinnamon Extract Promotes Type I Collagen Biosynthesis via Activation of IGF-I Signaling in Human Dermal Fibroblasts” – Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2012, DOI: 10.1021/jf2043357