Exotic spices. Wars were fought over them in distant lands where untold lives were lost or enslaved in the quest to control the trade of these extraordinary botanicals that could turn food into sublime taste adventures. Once revered for legendary healing properties and sold for over 50 times the annual wage of a common laborer, spices are now simply thought of as culinary condiments to be found in everyone’s spice drawer.
But a deeper look into recent science reveals that the ancients may not have been so very wrong in their belief that spices were the font of health. I’d like to share why a morning brew of a spicy tea is my preferred way to start the day.
Let’s begin with looking at cinnamon, foremost among spices for its sweet and pungent flavor that transforms anything going into your mouth while it has unexpected effects on your body. A recent accidental discovery has pushed cinnamon into the limelight for its effect on reducing blood sugar, the holy grail for people suffering from pre-diabetic and diabetic conditions.
Perhaps you want to stabilize your blood sugar to help lose weight or like me, you’re looking for a caffeine-free stimulant in your morning brew. Adding cinnamon to your daily diet is a delicious way to lower your blood sugar and reduce both your cholesterol and blood pressure while you naturally boost your metabolism. Here are the top 5 health benefits of cinnamon!
1) Cinnamon Lowers Blood Sugar
It’s not that scientist set out to study cinnamon. The US Department of Agriculture was conducting experiments on foods to see how fast they raise blood sugar. Oddly enough, America’s favorite apple pie had just the opposite effect. It helped reduce blood sugar!
Apple pie, high in both cane and fruit sugars, should have raised blood sugar, not lowered it. When researchers at the US Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland discovered this phenomenon, they delved into finding what caused it. Richard Anderson, the scientist in charge of the study, found that cinnamon in the apple pie was responsible for making fat cells more receptive to insulin. One of his postdoctoral students, Alam Khan, decided to conduct a test in Pakistan to see what effect cinnamon would have on diabetics.
60 participants with type 2 diabetes were given between 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon powder a day, for 40 days, in capsules after meals. Within a short period of time, their blood sugar levels dropped an average of 20% lower than the control group of diabetics who were only taking a placebo. Cinnamon helped some of the diabetics even reduce their blood sugar to normal levels during the course of the study. The effects of the cinnamon were not permanent however. When the diabetics stopped taking the cinnamon, their blood sugar levels rose again.
The active principle in cinnamon that makes fat cells more receptive to insulin is a water soluble, polyphenol compound called MHCP. MHCP activates an enzyme that causes insulin to bind to cells and inhibits the enzyme that blocks this process. MHCP mimics insulin by activating its cellular receptors and it works synergistically with insulin in the cells.
Cinnamon oil, commonly used as a natural flavoring, won’t help though. You have to eat or drink ground cinnamon just like you buy in the spice rack at your grocery store to get the beneficial effects of MHCP. If you don’t want to eat cinnamon at every meal, you can take cinnamon in capsules like the diabetics did in the study. But if you love the flavor of cinnamon, you can add it to your meals or drink teas high in cinnamon like Chai teas. One of the researchers found that even just placing a cinnamon stick in his tea cup lowered his blood sugar although he wasn’t diabetic.
2) Cinnamon Increases Your Metabolism
Pungent spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom increase the body’s metabolic rate. The heat you experience when you eat a spicy meal, or drink spice teas like Teeccino Dandelion Red Chai and Maya Chai, is generated by the stimulating effect of spices that raise your metabolism by burning up calories. Spices are natural stimulants that will wake up your system without adrenal-stimulating drugs such as caffeine that elevate stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
3) Cinnamon’s Polyphenols Are Potent Antioxidants
I’m sure you’ve heard that many fruits like berries are high in polyphenols and have strong antioxidant properties. What you may not know is that spices are packed with polyphenols too which activate antioxidants to fight free radicals. Even the little bit of spice that you add to flavor your dishes or drink in your tea can have a major impact on your body’s ability to quench those damaging free radicals.
Although cinnamon ranks in the top 100 foods with high polyphenol content, it’s near the bottom of the list. However, when studied for its effectiveness as an antioxidant using a test method called ORAC, which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, cinnamon ranks among the top 5 spices for fighting free radicals. It’s not necessarily the quantity of polyphenols that counts; it’s the type of polyphenol that makes the difference.
Just so you get the idea of the antioxidant potency of spices versus fruits, cinnamon has an ORAC score of 131,420 whereas blueberries have an ORAC score of 4,449. Now to be fair, you may eat a lot more blueberries than you will cinnamon, but nevertheless, that potency means that even a little bit can have a big impact.
If you’re curious about what the other spices are in the top 5, here’s the list in order of potency:
Cinnamon enhances digestion and can relieve gas and bloating. A recent study in Britain revealed that by including cinnamon in the diet of pigs, it lowered the CO2 in their stomachs and thus cooled their digestion by decreasing the release of gastric acid and pepsin. No wonder it’s been popular for centuries to relieve acid indigestion!
Cinnamon oil has anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-biotic properties like many essential oils from spices and other medicinal plants. After all, plants developed their essential oils to defend themselves from insects and diseases. Ground cinnamon has shown effectiveness against the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which is associated with the development of intestinal ulcers. It also fights candida, the yeast that can invade in your intestines causing both digestive and autoimmune problems.
One of the ways cinnamon helps reduce blood sugar levels is by also slowing down your digestion so that food moves more slowly from your stomach into your small intestines. That means that if your dessert contains cinnamon, the sugar in it will be absorbed more slowly and thus it won’t spike your blood sugar as rapidly as a dessert without cinnamon.
5) Cinnamon Boost Your Brain Power While Protecting Your Heart
Cinnamon was found in the diabetics study to significantly lower blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. It also helps prevent blood clots which makes eating cinnamon daily beneficial for heart health.
Cinnamon’s antioxidants have shown effectiveness in preventing the formation of various chemicals that contribute to the development of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They also inhibit the formation of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) that contribute to the aging of the brain.
Eat and Drink Cinnamon Daily
Cooking with cinnamon makes taking your daily dose a real pleasure. Cinnamon is included in all kinds of Indian curries and you’ll find lots of tropical recipes that depend on cinnamon where spices in general were thought to preserve food from spoilage. Cinnamon is used to spice up both meat and fish recipes and you can find Middle Eastern savory lamb and chicken recipes using cinnamon. Cinnamon flavors exotic rice dishes combined with nuts and raisins.
My favorite breakfast meal with cinnamon is TeeChia Cranberry Apple where the soluble fiber plus cinnamon makes a real heart healthy meal. I add even more cinnamon to my bowl to give me a bigger dose because I love its flavor and want the biggest impact from its health benefits too.
Like I said before, a spicy herbal chai is the way I start my day for a natural stimulant that wakes up my senses and sends a cascade of health benefits to my whole body!