The Benefits of Cinnamon
A lot of us – especially those of us who cook or bake – tend to think of herbs and spices as ways to add delicious and complex flavors to our foods. Cinnamon is a popular spice and commonly used in foods like cinnamon rolls and other baked goods, a topping for oatmeal or toast, or an addition to fruits and vegetables, like apples, sweet potatoes, or squash. It can bring out the natural sweetness in tomatoes when added to a sauce and is a great accompaniment to veggie stews. But besides its flavor attributes, its health benefits are myriad.
Types of Cinnamon
The first thing to know is that there are two primary types of cinnamon. The variety most commonly found is Cassia or Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum). This version is usually less expensive and originates from southern China. In addition, this is the variety you’ll find in most grocery stores. One problem is this version has a substance called coumarin that can cause liver damage when consumed in high quantities.
The other less common and more expensive version is Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), which is considered to be “true” cinnamon. This version originates from Sri Lanka, Madagascar and the Seychelles, and you’re more likely to find it in health food or specialty stores or on the internet.
The powdered forms of cinnamon are very difficult to distinguish, but Ceylon should almost always be labeled as such. When buying sticks, the Ceylon version will be lighter in color and have thinner, more fibrous layers.
As far as health benefits, cinnamon is chock full of powerful antioxidants. These are the compounds that protect us from substances called free radicals that contribute to aging. In fact, some cultures use cinnamon as a food preservative. These antioxidants may also be what provide cinnamon with its anti-inflammatory properties, which help the body fight infection and repair damaged tissue. In addition, activation of antioxidant responses in the body may help protect against and prevent the development of certain types of cancer.
Cinnamon can help insulin – the hormone that moves sugar out of the blood and into the tissues – do its job properly. Many cases of diabetes are related to insulin resistance, meaning we are making enough insulin; our cells just don’t recognize it and allow it to do its job properly. Cinnamon has high levels of the mineral chromium and other substances called polyphenols that are known to reduce insulin resistance, leading to better blood sugar regulation.
In addition to blood sugar, cinnamon helps regulate fat metabolism and has been shown to lower total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides, all forms of fat that can get stored in our blood. On the other hand, cinnamon can increase levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which has a protective mechanism and offsets bad fats. Cinnamon may also help to lower blood pressure. All of these things indicate that cinnamon may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Cinnamon has been found to have antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, helping to protect your body against infection by these microbes. Cinnamon can also enhance the function of nervous system and protect against certain degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, that seem to be on the rise in our aging population. Studies have shown that it protects nerve cells and improves motor function, while normalizing levels of nervous system chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
Like many herbs and spices, small amounts may suffice and provide these protective properties, so try adding a dash of cinnamon to your meal the next you cook. In addition, cinnamon is a great deterrent to ants and other insects; they hate the aromatic stuff! Cinnamon is a great alternative to pesticides, as well as being a natural room freshener!
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