Most people sprinkle cinnamon on their oatmeal or in their coffee because it tastes great, but did you know that cinnamon is packed with health benefits, too? Here’s everything you need to know about the health benefits of cinnamon – including which type of cinnamon you should choose (yep, there’s more than one type)!
What is Cinnamon?
Did you know that cinnamon is actually the bark of a tree? When the inner bark of the cinnamomum tree is shaved off and dried, it curls into rolls, creating cinnamon sticks! Those sticks are then ground to create the spice we buy in jars.
Types of Cinnamon: Are You Buying Cassia Cinnamon or Ceylon Cinnamon?
There are two main types of cinnamon: cassia and ceylon. Cassia cinnamon is what you’ll typically find in stores if you purchase a jar of cinnamon – it’s much cheaper than ceylon cinnamon and has a strong, spicy scent. Ceylon cinnamon is sometimes referred to as “true cinnamon” – it is much less common and more expensive, and has a milder aroma and flavor.
While both cassia and ceylon cinnamon boast similar health benefits, cassia cinnamon contains a substance called coumarin. Coumarin can be harmful in large doses, causing kidney and liver damage. Eating one teaspoon of cassia cinnamon daily puts you over the recommended limit for coumarin, so you’ll want to choose ceylon cinnamon if you eat cinnamon frequently or are taking cinnamon supplements.
Ceylon cinnamon is generally higher quality and is much safer than cassia if you’re using cinnamon in high volume. Although ceylon cinnamon is more expensive, it’s worth the price if you use cinnamon frequently – and with all the health benefits cinnamon provides, I’d definitely recommend using it frequently!
If you pick up a package of cinnamon that doesn’t specify whether it’s ceylon or cassia, you can usually assume that it’s cassia. Since it’s cheaper to produce, most companies will sell cassia cinnamon under the label “cinnamon.” If the cinnamon is ceylon, it’s usually labeled as such to justify the price jump. When buying whole cinnamon sticks, cassia cinnamon is typically thicker and may curl into itself just once or twice (see above photo), while ceylon cinnamon sticks have many thin layers and are much more brittle (see below photo) Saigon cinnamon or Chinese cinnamon are typically cassia, while cinnamon from Sri Lanka is usually ceylon.
Health Benefits of Cinnamon
The smell and flavor of cinnamon comes from its essential oils, which are high in a substance called cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamaldehyde is a potent antioxidant, helping to reduce free radicals and other substances that cause damage to your body. The essential oils from cinnamon also have anti-inflammatory effects, which is important for the prevention of numerous inflammatory diseases like heart disease, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Cinnamon and Blood Sugar
Numerous studies show that cinnamon is effective for helping to control blood sugar levels by stimulating insulin action and slowing carbohydrate digestion, which can be helpful for the prevention and management of diabetes.
A common test for measuring your body’s response to carbohydrates is an Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT). In an OGTT, you consume glucose and your blood sugar levels are measured immediately and then at intervals following the consumption, to see if your blood sugar levels stay high long after consumption (which could indicate diabetes or insulin resistance). One study of seven males found that when they consumed 5g of cinnamon along with the glucose for their OGTT’s, their blood sugar levels decreased 13% compared to when a placebo was taken with the glucose. When the 5g of cinnamon was taken 12 hours before the OGTT, blood sugar levels were still decreased 10% compared to the placebo!
A follow-up study had men take 3g of cinnamon daily for 2 weeks to test longer-term effects of cinnamon consumption. This study found that blood sugar levels of those who consumed cinnamon were about 5-8% lower than those who took a placebo after 2 weeks, but this effect was quickly reversed when cinnamon supplementation stopped.
Not all studies show such significant results, but considering the safety of taking cinnamon daily (as long as it’s ceylon) and the number of studies that show strong anti-diabetic effects, it shows promise for helping keep your blood sugar levels in check!
Cinnamon and Brain Health
Another compound in cinnamon, cinnamophilin, has been shown to reduce the damage that neurodegenerative diseases cause to brain cells. One of the hallmark signs of Alzheimer’s Disease is the accumulation of a substance called tau in the brain. In numerous animal studies, cinnamon extract has been shown to prevent the accumulation of tau, improving cognitive function and reducing the severity of Alzheimer’s Disease. Cinnamon has also been shown to increase the proteins that protect the brain from damage caused by Parkinson’s Disease.
These protective effects of cinnamon, combined with cinnamon’s effects on insulin sensitivity, have been shown to improve memory and neurological function. While these neurological effects of cinnamon have only been tested on animals, the promising results suggest that cinnamon may be helpful for brain health in humans as well.
Cinnamon and Heart Health
Cinnamon has also been shown to improve cholesterol levels, which combined with its anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic effects, is great news for heart health. One study found that people with diabetes who took 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon daily for 40 days all had reduced triglyceride, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels compared to those who took placebos, while HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels weren’t significantly reduced. Those who took 6 grams of cinnamon daily saw the greatest decrease – triglycerides, LDL, and total cholesterol were all decreased by over 25% compared to the placebo groups!
The Bottom Line: Cinnamon and Health
All in all, cinnamon is a great addition to your diet both for its flavor and its health benefits. Since cinnamon is so widely available (and so delicious!) I’d recommend seasoning your food with cinnamon rather than taking cinnamon supplements daily. Just remember that most cinnamon on store shelves is cassia cinnamon, which can become dangerous if you’re eating a teaspoon every day. Invest in a jar of high quality ceylon cinnamon and sprinkle away!
Are you a fan of cinnamon? Did you know there are different types of cinnamon?