Fragrant and comforting, cinnamon is not only one of the most popular spices but also has a long history in traditional medicine. It has been used for more than 5,000 years by Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine for a wide range of ailments. These included digestive disorders, fever, the flu, and menstrual problems. Imported to ancient Egypt, the expensive spice and its essential oil were used for cooking, as perfume, and in embalming mixtures. In the middle ages, doctors used cinnamon bark to treat conditions such as coughing, arthritis, and sore throats. Since it was so rare at that time, it was also used as a status symbol and luxury spice in Europe.
There are different types of cinnamon with two main varieties, Ceylon and Cassia. Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum Verum) is native to Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, and known as true cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) is also called Chinese cinnamon as it originates from southern China. Since Cassia is cheaper than Ceylon cinnamon, it is usually more common today and what people generally refer to as “cinnamon”.
Nowadays, cinnamon bark and cinnamon oil can be found as flavouring ingredients in various foods. Well known for its many health benefits, the herb is also used in cinnamon supplements, capsules, extracts or teas. Not only is it a strong antioxidant but can also provide relief for digestive problems and might help lower fasting blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes. Some people use cinnamon oil as a natural insect repellent. Its pleasant aroma and anti-bacterial properties make the essential oil also a frequent ingredient in perfumes, oral health products, and aromatherapy.
The popular spice is made from the inner bark of trees of the genus Cinnamomum in the Lauraceae family (the laurels). There are many varieties of the evergreen tree, but four main species are economically most important.
Cinnamomum verum is also known as Cinnamomum zeylanicum, true or Ceylon cinnamon. Sri Lanka is the only regular supplier of true cinnamon bark and leaf oils. It is more expensive and difficult to find a variety that is used in food and health products.
Currently, the most common type in grocery stores is cinnamon bark from Cinnamomum cassia, also called C. aromaticum, Chinese or Cassia cinnamon.
The two other species are C. burmannii, also called Korintje or Indonesian cinnamon, and C. loureiroi, also known as Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon.
The inner bark is the main medicinal part of the herb. Around every two years, the trees are cut to just above ground level. After cutting the stems, the inner bark is extracted, and the woody parts are removed. When the bark dries, it forms strips that curl into rolls or quills, known as cinnamon sticks. These sticks can either be used or ground to powder. While it is difficult to tell the difference between the varieties visually when they are in powder form, their bark rolls look quite different. Cassia sticks tend to be a darker brown-red colour and thicker with a rougher texture than Ceylon sticks. Also, their flavours are different. Cinnamomum zeylanicum has a lighter, sweeter flavour than the strong, spicy and slightly bitter flavour of Chinese cinnamon.
Further, essential oils can be distilled from either the outer bark of the tree or its leaves. Cinnamon bark oil is darker and stronger than cinnamon leaf oil. Both oils are used by herbalists and in aromatherapy.
Cassia cinnamon contains coumarin. This is a chemical compound found in several plants that can cause liver damage in high doses. Therefore, using C. zeylanicum can reduce the risk of consuming too much coumarin if you are a cinnamon lover or regularly take cinnamon supplements or other dietary supplements containing it.
What does the plant look like?
Belonging to the laurel family, the evergreen tree has characteristic oval, leathery leaves and grows to a height of 10 to 15 meters. The young leaves are red and mature to a deep green. When they are dried, they resemble bay leaves and have a spicy smell. The tree produces clusters of small yellow or green flowers that become small, dark purple fruits. Its bark is thick and strongly aromatic. Smooth and pale brown on young shoots, cinnamon bark gets a rough texture and turns dark brown on mature stems.
Where the name comes from?
The botanical name Cinnamomum is thought to be derived from the Hebraic and Arabic term “amomon”, meaning fragrant spice plant. In several European languages, the names for the spice are canella, cannelle or kanel. These names are derived from the Latin word “canella”, meaning little tube, which aptly describes the aromatic sticks.
Cinnamon bark and its oil are used for a wide range of conditions in traditional medicine. These include digestive disorders and respiratory tract infections. Over the past 20 years, the herb has been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activity. Moreover, it might potentially play a role in glucose and lipid control.
There have been many studies of cinnamon, especially for diabetes. In 2013, a meta-analysis of ten clinical trials in 543 diabetes patients concluded that cinnamon can help lower fasting blood sugar levels, total and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, as well as triglyceride levels. Clinical studies showed that it also might help improve the inulin sensitivity, meaning the body’s response to insulin, in these patients. However, according to NCCIH, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the results of the studies are difficult to interpret. It seems often unclear what type and what part of the tree were used. Also, it is not well understood how much cinnamon is optimal, and whether it leads to a significant, long-term reduction in blood sugar. This means that cinnamon supplements or capsules can serve as a helpful addition but are not an alternative to medication in existing type 2 diabetes.
Similarly, a 2012 review of three studies on the effect of cinnamon on blood pressure in patients with pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes found a short-term reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. But these studies were small, and more research is needed.
Research reports that cinnamon bark breaks down fats in the digestive tract. Additionally, its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and free radical scavenging properties in the gastrointestinal tract makes it a valuable digestive aid. Therefore, cinnamon supplements can help strengthen a weak digestive system and maintaining normal digestive functionalities.
One of the most well-established properties of cinnamon extracts, essential oils and their components is the antibacterial activity due to bioactive phytochemicals such as cinnamaldehyde and eugenol. The herb is also a good source of manganese and smaller quantities of iron and calcium. These vital minerals are essential for a well-functioning immune system. Some animal studies have suggested that cinnamon may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Medicinal Properties of Cinnamon
The active ingredients of the bark and its essential oil contain antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Along with cloves, the herb is classed in the top 3 antioxidant foods.
Some studies also suggested anti-diabetic properties and benefits for heart health. However, more research is needed to confirm these and other possible health benefits.
How or what it is used for
Cinnamon is not only a popular spice used in food. It has been used in traditional medicines for relief of many different conditions, such as:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Colds, coughs and bronchitis
- High blood pressure
- Tooth decay and gum disease
- Menstrual irregularities
- Wound healing
- Athlete’s foot
Ceylon cinnamon is used in cinnamon supplements to promote blood circulation of the smooth muscle tissue and thus relieves flatulence, bloating and cramps in the digestive tract. Taken as a tea or tincture, the herb is also ideal for stimulating digestion after a large meal. For its anti-bacterial properties, cinnamon bark is a frequent ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash. The herb’s essential oil is known to benefit the respiratory system by reducing the symptoms of colds and the flu. It also helps with some types of fungal infections and wound healing. In aromatherapy, the essential oil is used as anti-depressant. Some people use cinnamon supplements for weight loss, even though this usage is not evidence-based. One naturally occurring substance in the essential oil of cinnamon bark is cinnamyl isobutyrate. This aroma compound is a common flavoring agent in cinnamon-flavored food as well as a fragrance ingredient.
Health Canada approved uses of Ceylon Cinnamon in cinnamon supplements:
- As source of antioxidants
- In Ayurveda for bowel complaints
- (such as indigestion, flatulency, diarrhea and vomiting)
- In Herbal Medicine for digestive disturbances
- (such as mild gastrointestinal colic, feeling of bloating, and flatulence)
- In Herbal Medicine for loss of appetite
The bark of C. verum contains mucilage, tannin, sugar, resin, and essential oil. The essential oil is responsible for the flavor and aroma of the herb. Also, it is medically the most important constituent. Cinnamaldehyde, also known as cinnamic aldehyde, is one of the main components of the oil. Scientists believe that this compound is responsible for most of the beneficial effects on health and metabolism.
The herb’s essential oil is known to act like a natural antimicrobial agent on certain bacteria and fungi. Cinnamaldehyde has been shown to destroy the cell membrane of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria and to inhibit the growth of certain fungal species, including yeasts. It has also demonstrated antibacterial effects against Helicobacter pylori. This is a type of bacterium that causes inflammation and ulcers in the stomach or small intestine. A study showed that cinnamon preparations traditionally used for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders are effective on suppressing Helicobacter pylori with little or no adverse reactions.
When used in food amounts, Ceylon cinnamon usually causes no side effects. It has been safely used in doses of 0.5 to 3 grams daily for up to 6 months. Use in larger amounts or for long periods of time is sometimes associated with side effects such as gastrointestinal problems or allergic reactions. However, for children and during pregnancy or while breastfeeding it is recommended to stick to quantities commonly found in foods.
Ceylon cinnamon may affect the blood sugar level. If you have diabetes and take cinnamon supplements, you should monitor your blood sugar closely and might need to adjust your treatment.
If you take any medication regularly, talk to your doctor before start using cinnamon supplements. Especially if you suffer from diabetes, heart disease, or liver disease.
Cassia cinnamon contains a chemical called coumarin, which can be harmful to the liver. In most cases, consuming moderate amounts does not provide enough coumarin to cause significant problems. Still, in case of prolonged use you could consider switching to Ceylon cinnamon as it does not contain coumarin.
Pascoe Canada does not offer health or medical advice as we are not a healthcare practitioner. Please speak with your healthcare practitioner before beginning any program related to nutrition, diet, exercise, fitness, medical, and/or wellness. All content published by Pascoe Canada is developed through collaborating with licensed medical professionals and contributors. This includes text, graphics, images, and other material on the website, newsletter, and products (“Content”). This content is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The content does not substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always do your own research on whether this is for you along with your healthcare practitioner advice. Always consult your healthcare practitioner prior to use specific herbs because you might have underlined conditions needs professional care. The content is general in nature and are subject to change. It is not intended to cover all possible uses, directions, precautions, warnings, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or adverse effects.
Cinnamaldehyde also showed to reduce inflammations by suppressing the production of certain cytokines. Further, it is a known antioxidant that is classified as generally recognized as safe and is approved for use in foods. Antioxidants are substances that help neutralize free radicals, preventing them from damaging cells in the body. The other principal anti-oxidant elements in C. verum bark are proanthocyanidins, better known as condensed tannins. These compounds might protect from heart diseases.
Studies have found that cinnamaldehyde might also help balance blood sugar in those with type 2 diabetes by increasing glucose uptake and improving insulin sensitivity. While research shows some benefit for blood sugar control, it is still important to know that cinnamon supplements should not be used as replacement for diabetes medication or a treatment plan. Further studies are still needed to determine the effectiveness of the active principles in cinnamon bark as well as their exact mechanisms.
Not only is it a delicious spice, but the herb is also linked to many health benefits. From research findings, it can be concluded that its compounds have many beneficial functional properties. Further studies are required to determine the herb’s therapeutic effects in helping prevent and treat serious diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood cholesterol, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.