More than a cherished spice, cinnamon has been widely used for thousands of years as a natural remedy for a variety of ailments, including the silent killer — diabetes. In 2012, diabetes was the eighth leading cause of death in the world. In 2014, diabetes affected 422 million people worldwide — and half didn’t even know they had it. In honor of National Diabetes Awareness Month this November, we’re taking a look at the science behind cinnamon and whether or not it helps with Type 2 diabetes.
THE LINK BETWEEN CINNAMON AND DIABETES
Cinnamon compounds have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may play a role in reducing insulin resistance. This is primarily helpful for Type 2 diabetics who are insulin resistant but not for Type 1 diabetics who cannot produce enough insulin. (Cinnamon could become helpful for Type 1 diabetics if they become insulin resistant.) For this reason, we’re going to focus on Type 2 diabetes.
QUICK REVIEW: TYPE 2 DIABETES
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body cannot properly use glucose (aka sugar). If not managed properly, this can cause a buildup of glucose in the blood and lead to serious health problems down the line.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas — the organ that regulates blood sugar — produces a lot of insulin, but the body doesn’t respond to it. The cells become insulin resistant.
Think of insulin as a gatekeeper. After you eat a slice of bread, the carbohydrates are digested into glucose (and other nutrients), which are then sent into the bloodstream so that tissues can use these nutrients. Glucose needs insulin as a helper hormone to open cell walls, allowing it to pass through into the cell, where the glucose is burned for energy or stored. When our body can’t use insulin, it can’t absorb glucose. Thus, sugar builds up in the bloodstream, leading to damaged nerves, blood vessels and, eventually, diabetes.
Diabetes is managed by keeping blood sugar levels under control and in a healthy range. For someone with diabetes, the American Diabetes Association recommends a normal premeal blood sugar range between 80 and 130 mg/dl and less than 180 mg/dl up to two hours after a meal.
Though studies have shown promise, the ADA’s current stance is that there is not enough sufficient evidence to recommend adding cinnamon in therapeutic doses to your daily diet for antidiabetic benefits. Let’s explore the pros and cons.
ARGUMENTS FOR CINNAMON
1. Lowers blood sugar and lipid levels. In a 2003 study, 60 people with Type 2 diabetes took 1, 3 or 6 grams of cinnamon in capsule form for 40 days. Participants saw reduced glucose, triglycerides, LDL (aka “bad”) cholesterol and total cholesterol. Researchers took a midpoint reading at day 20 and found significantly decreased levels of glucose and triglycerides only in the group receiving 6 grams of cinnamon. Although results are more immediate at a higher cinnamon dosage, this study found significant positive results across the board by day 40 and suggests that a wide range of cinnamon intake may be beneficial in maintaining blood glucose and lipid levels.
A 2006 study randomly assigned 79 patients with Type 2 diabetes to take 3 grams of cinnamon supplements per day. After four months, researchers observed a significantly higher reduction in fasting blood sugar.
In a 2012 review with a total of 435 patients, researchers found a significant decrease in both hemoglobin A1C (a measurement of average blood sugar levels over a period of three to four months) and fasting blood glucose with cinnamon doses ranging from 1–6 grams per day with a follow-up range between 40 days and four months.
That same team performed an updated review in 2013 with a total of 543 patients and cinnamon doses ranging from 120 mg–6 g per day for 4–18 weeks. They concluded that cinnamon yielded statistically significant decreases in levels of fasting plasma glucose, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. However, in this review, there were no significant effects on hemoglobin A1C levels.
2. Decreases inflammation. There is strong evidence that Type 2 diabetes contributes to inflammation, which may worsen the insulin resistance. Cinnamon is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. An experiment on rats suggests that cinnamon relieves oxidative stress and the pro-inflammatory environment in the pancreas. If this could be replicated in human studies, this may protect the pancreas and thereby protect insulin production.
3. Improves insulin sensitivity. There’s preliminary evidence from animal research that links cinnamon to better insulin sensitivity. One experiment showed that rats given cinnamon were more insulin sensitive than the control group. If human trials can show the same, it’s promising as treatment for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST CINNAMON
1. Not all studies have shown effective results for cinnamon. In a study of 25 post-menopausal women with Type 2 diabetes, researchers found that the patients’ fasting blood lipid profile did not change after six weeks of taking 1.5 grams of cinnamon supplements per day.
In a study of 17 patients with impaired glucose tolerance, researchers found that consumption of 6 grams of cinnamon twice a day for 12 weeks had no significant effects on insulin sensitivity.
Furthermore, the ADA conducted a study with 57 individuals with Type 2 diabetes. After consuming 1 gram of cinnamon or placebo daily for three months, participants in both groups revealed no significant difference with respect to BMI, A1C, cholesterol, triglyceride or insulin levels.
2. Cinnamon can interact with drugs. Since cinnamon may lower your blood sugar, you need to exercise caution with other drugs. If you’re planning to take cinnamon supplements in addition to other diabetes medications, it may cause your blood sugar to drop too low (i.e., hypoglycemia). Hence, it is crucial to pay close attention to your blood sugar levels and see how cinnamon affects it.
TWO TYPES OF CINNAMON
There are two types of cinnamon: ceylon and cassia. Ceylon cinnamon, or “true cinnamon,” is more difficult to find and more expensive than cassia cinnamon, which is what you commonly find at stores. Both share the same blood sugar lowering and lipid lowering characteristics, but cassia cinnamon contains higher levels of coumarin, a blood-thinning agent that at very high doses can lead to toxic effects on the liver in sensitive individuals. Thus, when consuming large doses of cinnamon, such as for diabetes management, it is safer to choose the ceylon variety. (This does not mean you need to worry about cooking with cinnamon or putting it in your coffee!)
Cinnamon may help Type 2 diabetes, but with current divided research findings, it is hard to definitively say that it’s helpful. Further research is needed to investigate how specific factors (such as diet, demographics and cinnamon dose) may affect cinnamon’s effectiveness.
If you’re already sprinkling cinnamon into your daily oats, smoothies and yogurt, keep enjoying it! Cinnamon is an affordable and delicious spice, but if you’re considering taking a cinnamon supplement, consult your doctor as you would with adding any other supplement to your diet.