Sugar and Spice: Does Cinnamon Help Control Blood Sugar in Diabetes?
In the summer of 1996, I found myself on a night train heading from Madrid, Spain to a tiny town called Pamplona. My brother and I, young vagabonds, were pilgrims heading to this town for the festival of San Fermin, better known as The Running of the Bulls. I couldn't sleep and neither could a young Spanish woman sitting across from me in the train carriage. We struck up a conversation talking about nothing and everything at the same time. Somehow it came up that I really liked Spanish sangria. A spark lit her eyes as she pinched her fingers together, palm upward, shaking her hand and said, "The secret is the canella!" I asked her what canella was and she said, "Canella is canella... I don't know." This memory hit me months later, back in the U.S., and I grabbed my Spanish-English dictionary (this was years before Google). To my surprise, canella translates as cinnamon.
Since then, I've enjoyed a new-found appreciation for cinnamon. I've used it in desserts, hot chocolate, tea, chili and yes, sangria. Naturally, my interest has been peaked even further with the recent appearance of cinnamon in the medical literature as potentially beneficial in the treatment of diabetes.
Cinnamon is a universal spice used to enhance both sweet and savory foods. It is derived from the dried inner bark of several trees in the Cinnamomum Lauraceae family. Distilling the bark will yield a potent essential oil rich in the chemical compound cinnamaldehyde. This spice was used in ancient Egypt, and there are several biblical references to the spice.
Cinnamon and Blood Sugar
Speculation has led to scientific analysis regarding the blood sugar lowering potential of cinnamon, and recently, an analysis of the top 10 recent studies has culminated in some significant findings.
Though the studies did not contain a large number of participants (a range of 20-60 subjects), some consistency was noted. On average, cinnamon was associated with a 24 point lowering of morning blood sugar readings. This was compared to the standard diabetes medication, metformin, which lowered the blood sugar by 58 points. There was also a comparison to a newer diabetes medication, sitagliptin (Januvia), which lowered the blood glucose 16-21, depending on the study.
There was not a lot of consistency regarding the dosing of the cinnamon. Different species of cinnamon were used, and in some of the trials, there was no specification. Cinnamon was dosed before or around meals. Dosage varied greatly from 120 mg per day to 6000 mg per day. Half of the studies looked at cinnamon used along with standard diabetes medications and found an additive affect, but they were relatively short-term - only lasting a matter of weeks.
In addition to blood sugar lowering, cholesterol numbers were also showed to improve. Modest improvements in total cholesterol were noted with a decrease of bad cholesterol (LDL) and an increase of good cholesterol (HDL). In all of the studies, cinnamon was shown to be safe with no reported side effects (including blood sugars going too low).
Another important aspect of this debate involves cost. While cinnamon is cheap, it should be noted that Januvia costs around $200 per month.
The Bottom Line
Will I recommend cinnamon to my diabetic patients? Yes, why wouldn't I? Cinnamon has been shown to be effective and its consistent use over several millennia proves its safety, and the cholesterol benefits are a bonus. Different medications work differently in different people, and I would evaluate the efficacy on an individual level.
At this point, we know the drawbacks involve determining optimal dosage and which form is the best option. I have to believe that with the present buzz, larger scale studies will be soon underway, but even for now, consider spicing up your diabetes treatment.