Guide to cinnamon

Cinnamon has been used in cooking and herbal medicine for thousands of years. The spice was highly sought after in Ancient Egypt for its health benefits, and in medieval times was used to treat a range of conditions, including coughing, arthritis, bronchitis and sore throats. Cinnamon tree bark is the source of an essential oil that contains terpenoids, plant compounds believed to give the spice its distinctive aroma and which may also be responsible for cinnamon's health benefits.

What does cinnamon do?

One explanation for cinnamon’s health-boosting properties is its high level of antioxidant activity. 1 These antioxidants protect other cells in the body from harmful damage by free radicals, which build up as you age and can contribute to heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Cinnamon's main active ingredient, hydroxychalcone, helps regulate blood sugar levels and improve the effects of the hormone insulin. Cinnamon extracts may also revitalise cells in the body which have lost their ability to respond to insulin and therefore are unable to deal with excess blood sugar, helping them become responsive again 2

Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes develops when insulin-producing cells in the body are unable to make enough, or when cells do not respond to the insulin produced (known as insulin resistance).3 Around 3.5 million people in the UK are estimated to have been diagnosed with diabetes. 4

Several studies suggest cinnamon extracts may improve blood glucose levels and increase insulin sensitivity. One 2016 study found patients with type 2 diabetes given 1g of cinnamon a day showed improvements in glucose control, with a reduction in glycosylated haemoglobin (HbA1C) levels - a measurement that reflects blood sugar levels over an 8-12 week period. 5

Polycystic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition caused by an imbalance of reproduction hormones. 6 It affects one in five women in the UK. 7 PCOS can cause period problems, reduced fertility, acne and excess hair growth. It is also associated with insulin resistance, where the natural hormone insulin becomes less effective at lowering blood sugar. 8

A study, by Columbia University in New York, found women with PCOS who took a daily 1.5g cinnamon supplement had a more regular menstrual cycle than those who took a placebo pill. The researchers said cinnamon could be an effective treatment option for some women with PCOS. 9

Getting cinnamon from your diet

Cinnamon bark is made into powders, which you can sprinkle over food or can even be added into your tea or coffee. You can also drink cinnamon as a tea or as liquid extract, available at health food stores and supermarkets. Alternatively, take a cinnamon supplement.

Safety

Cinnamon is considered safe to use for most people, although if you take high doses you may experience skin irritation and allergic reactions. 10

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to avoid taking cinnamon as there haven't been enough studies to guarantee its safety, though its considered safe as a food. 11 Always consult your doctor if you are taking cinnamon alongside another medication. If you have diabetes, monitor blood glucose levels carefully when taking supplements and ensure you know how to adjust your medication if improvements occur.

Correct dosage

There’s currently no UK or EU recommended daily allowance. One tablet of 200mg standardised extract (equivalent to 1,000mg of cinnamon) is recommended by experts and is the dose used in most trials. Two 200mg tablets a day may be taken under the supervision of a practitioner and you are having your blood sugar monitored.

A plant sterols supplement is often taken with cinnamon to lower cholesterol, a waxy substance made in the liver which can clog arteries and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Today, cinnamon is popular as a dietary supplement for gastrointestinal problems, loss of appetite, and for improving glucose control in people with metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes. It may also help to improve the insulin resistance associated with polycystic ovary syndrome.

Dr Sarah Brewer

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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