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The Spice of Life Is Also the Spice of Health
By: Lorin Shields-Michel
With all of the spices available to humans, it may come as no surprise that one of the most pleasantly fragranced is also one with the most health benefits. Cinnamon, a lovely reddish brown powder for sprinkling on toast or a small, tightly wrapped piece of bark for stirring tea, has the power to do more than spice up our lives- it also has the power to assist in a variety of health issues like high cholesterol, diabetes and even cancer.
So what is it about cinnamon that makes it special, aside from its near universal use in baking? Let's take a look at where it all began for some clues.

The first mention of cinnamon, also known as cassia, sweet wood and Gui Zhi, is in Chinese texts dating some 4,000 years ago. It is also interesting to note that during that time it was used primarily as a medicine, rather than for flavor. The ancient Egyptians used the oil from the spice's distilled bark and leaves for embalming, and were the first to add it to food-again, not for flavor, but to discourage spoiling. Its first uses in medicine can actually be traced to the Middle Ages when the bubonic plague raged through Europe. Sponges were soaked in the cinnamon and cloves, and placed in the rooms of the sick. The hope was that the strong aroma would kill the bacteria. It may have had the opposite effect, however, in actually attracting more of the rodents that were responsible for the outbreak. Keep in mind that leeches were also used during this time. Modern medicine still had a long way to go!
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, cinnamon inspired the journeys of Vasco De Gama to India and Christopher Columbus to the New World, and it was burned as incense because its rich aroma was found to stimulate the senses while also calming nerves. Its historical uses vary from culture to culture, with many ancient texts, including those of Native American Indians, citing its use in the treatment of diarrhea, chills, the flu, rheumatism and even certain menstrual disorders. Cinnamon bark was rubbed on the torso to eliminate rashes, and twigs from the cinnamon tree were used to treat ailments of the fingers and toes, including arthritis and athlete's foot. Success was so sweet that herbalists have long used the crushed bark to make a 'fortnight' brandy, again for medicinal purposes.
Amazingly, cinnamon, which comes primarily from the bark of small evergreen tree indigenous to Southeast Asia, also functions as a purifying rinse for dark hair, as a toothpaste flavoring to help freshen breath, in massage oils, and to help beautify the skin, promoting a healthy-looking complexion. All this and cookies, too! It's hard to believe that one spice can be responsible for so much internal and external good health, but research shows that it's true.
Recent studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition and Research Center have found that cinnamon also significantly reduces blood sugar levels in diabetics. Not bad for a spice as old as time itself.

When you eat, the sugars and starches you consume are broken down by the body into a substance called glucose, which circulates through the blood stream to be used for energy, or if not used, turned into fat. Insulin, a hormone manufactured by the body, is what allows blood cells to absorb the glucose. If your body doesn't produce enough insulin, you may have type-1 diabetes. If your body produces insulin but doesn't use it properly, you have type-2 diabetes. That may seem like an overly simplified description of diabetes. It is, however, useful when it comes to understanding how a lack of insulin can lead to serious long-term health issues and how diabetes can cause irreversible damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves, and other organs.
There is also a condition known as pre-diabetes or syndrome X, in which a person's blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough for a diagnosis of type-2 diabetes.
In short, insulin resistance increases your risk for diabetes because of something known as metabolic syndrome.
According to the National Library of Medicine, metabolic syndrome is a "compilation of factors characterized by insulin resistance and the identification of three of the five criteria of abdominal obesity, elevated triglycerides, decreased high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, elevated blood pressure, and elevated fasting plasma glucose."
In fact, approximately 47 million Americans live with metabolic syndrome, a condition that is directly related to a 61 percent increase in obesity. This also appears to correlate to an emerging health epidemic for women.
What to do? How about a little cinnamon?

A study from the Human Research Center of the USDA and the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests "this remarkable spice can improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism and potentially counter or reverse the course of obesity" and other health issues like diabetes.
Cinnamon, it seems, has an active ingredient that is a water-soluble polyphenol compound known as MHCP. This compound appears remarkably similar to insulin, working alongside and in conjunction with real insulin inside of blood cells. Think of it as a nurse assisting a doctor. Together, the cinnamon compound and the body's own insulin combine to lower blood sugar levels.
In fact, when volunteers were given three to six grams of cinnamon powder a day, blood sugar levels were an average of 20 percent lower. Some actually achieved normal blood sugar levels. Metabolism also seemed to increase, thus helping the body to convert sugar into immediate cellular energy rather then ending up as "stored" potential energy in the form of fat deposits.
The discovery was initially made by accident, by Richard Anderson of the USDA Human Nutrition and Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. "We were looking at the effects of common foods on blood sugar," he told New Scientist's online news service in an online report published November 24, 2003. "One was the American favorite, apple pie, which is usually spiced with cinnamon. We expected it to be bad, but it helped."
According to New Scientist, in the test tube experiments, MHCP mimics insulin activates its receptor, and works synergistically with insulin in cells.
To see if it would work in people, Alam Khan, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Anderson's lab, organized a study in Pakistan. Volunteers with type-2 diabetes were given one, three or six grams of cinnamon powder a day, in capsules after meals.
All responded within weeks, with blood sugar levels that were on average 20 percent lower than a control group. Some even achieved normal blood sugar levels. Tellingly, blood sugar started creeping up again after the diabetics stopped taking cinnamon.
The cinnamon had additional benefits, according to the online report, "In the volunteers, it lowered blood levels of fats and 'bad' cholesterol, which are also partly controlled by insulin. And in test tube experiments it neutralized free radicals, damaging chemicals which are elevated into diabetics."
A clinical study published in Diabetes Care, a journal of the American Diabetes Association, suggests taking the equivalent of a half- teaspoon of cinnamon daily- split into two parts (a quarter teaspoon per serving) right after eating a lunch and dinner in order to assist in lowering blood sugar levels. In their study, people with type-2 diabetes also had significant reductions in cholesterol, triglycerides and serum glucose.
Cinnamon, as it appears, also helps to neutralize free radicals. It provides anti fungal and