Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Keeping Blood Sugar Levels Balanced with Cinnamon

More than a long time ago the ancient Greeks used cinnamon to treat a host of illnesses, including indigestion and nausea. The Egyptians were known to add it to their embalming formulae, recognizing the spice’s power as a preservative. Later on, during the Middle Ages, cinnamon was mixed with cloves and water to help reduce symptoms of Bubonic plague. Traditional Indian medicine has used cinnamon in Aruyvedic treatment to heal a myriad of problems such as urinary tract and yeast infections.  Today in current medicinal circles, cinnamon is recognized for its ability to balance glucose levels when insulin secretion is high.

The Cinnamon Tree
Native to Sri Lanka, Southern India, the West Indies, Zanzibar, Madagascar, Egypt, and Brazil, cinnamon is an evergreen tree that sports flowers along with berries containing a single seed. But it is the bark of the cinnamon tree that holds the medicinal secrets. Once the bark is removed from the tree, an inner portion is then stripped away and made into rolls or ground into the powder we find in supermarkets and health food stores.
Maintaining Glucose Levels with Cinnamon
The body controls blood sugar levels via the pancreas, which secretes a hormone that transports glucose to each cell. A healthy pancreas releases the right amount of this hormone in order to deliver the insulin properly. Our body’s cells are designed with receptors that respond to the insulin. If these receptors become resistant, it causes the pancreas to secrete more insulin in order to get enough glucose to the cells, which then increases the level of blood glucose.  When this happens, the system becomes imbalanced, whereby a pre-diabetic condition can occur.  If left untreated, this can then lead to diabetes.

Diabetes is one of the most serious diseases worldwide. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is an essential way to avoid this lethal illness. Keeping glucose levels regulated  often becomes more difficult as we age due to the potential breakdown in the body’s ability to metabolize glucose.

In a study on cinnamon’s ability to control blood sugar levels conducted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, researchers discovered that the spice contains compounds that help to increase glucose metabolism  “twenty-fold.” These compounds are known as procyanidins, which function along with the phytochemicals epicatechin, phenol, and tannin.  Acting similarly to insulin, they help the body regulate glucose levels, reducing symptoms of hyperglycemia, which occurs when blood sugar levels rise. Cinnamon also contains MHCP, or methylhydroxychalcone polymer, another compound that assists with glycogen synthesis.

According to the leading doctor in the study, Dr. Richard A. Anderson, a mere half teaspoon of cinnamon each day can help the body maintain appropriate blood sugar levels while also balancing triglycerides and cholesterol, with no side effects.

Other Studies on Cinnamon and Blood Sugar
In another study conducted by postdoctoral fellow, Alam Khan, 60 diabetic volunteers were divided in half. One half was given daily doses of cinnamon and the other half was given a placebo. The experiment was conducted for 40 days, resulting in the group taking the cinnamon displaying a distinctly healthy change in their glucose levels. Once this diabetic group stopped taking cinnamon however, the levels rose to their former position.

Cinnamon and Blood Pressure
When blood pressure increases due to an over stimulated nervous system, the body secretes both noradrenalin and insulin, which in turn stimulate glucose production. As blood sugar levels rise in the bloodstream, metabolic imbalances can easily occur. In a study done at Georgetown University, hypersensitive rats were tested with cinnamon to see if the spice would lower their systolic blood pressure by helping regulate insulin function.  Sure enough, it did.

Other Benefits of Cinnamon
Cinnamon contains several important minerals, such as iron, calcium, and manganese, in addition to fiber. It is considered an anti-oxidant, and also has anti-fungal and anti-clotting properties along with its ability to lower triglycerides and bad cholesterol. Hard to imagine that such a fragrant and delicious spice can be so potent, but so it is!

True Cinnamon and Cassia
True cinnamon is rather ragged around the edges, as opposed to its sister, cassia, which comes in more distinct and tidy rolls.  True cinnamon originates in  Sri Lanka and is usually light brown in color and quite dry.   

Cassia generally comes from China and other Southeastern Asian countries. It  has a stronger flavor than true cinnamon and is darker in color.  It also has a larger amount of coumarin than true cinnamon, which is a phytochemical that helps to thin the blood.  In the end, deciding between the two is a matter of taste. But do note that labels do not always differentiate between the two, so make sure you look at the shape and color so you know what you are getting.  Most commercial “cinnamon” sold in the United States is actually cassia, or a combination of cassia and cinnamon.

Including Cinnamon in the Diet
Cinnamon is best used when it is fresh. If you are used to buying it ground, make sure that its smell is notable. Sticks of cinnamon can be ground for the best flavor, but even the sticks can become stale if they sit on the shelf for too long. Make sure you store your cinnamon or cassia in a cool, dry cupboard to keep it fresh for as long as possible. 

There are many recipes that feature cinnamon, from curries to hot chocolate and more.  I put cinnamon on my cereal or toast and almost always add some to my curry mixes as well as my blender drinks.  Tasty and healthy, all in one!

Word to the wise:  If you are taking anti-clotting medicine, consult with your health care provider before using cinnamon regularly in your diet.

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