Cinnamon is one of the world’s oldest known spices and has been used as medicine, eaten as food, employed in embalming, and burned in religious ceremonies for at least 4,000 years. While it may no longer be used for embalming or burned in sacred rites, cinnamon is still a beloved spice. It’s incorporated into cuisines all over the world, and, in a move that hearkens back to its original use by the ancient Chinese, more and more people are touting its benefits for everything from the common cold to cancer. But is there any truth to these claims? Come with us as we explore the potential healing properties of this exotic spice and discover whether cinnamon for colds, heart health, diabetes, and more is indeed fact or simply folklore.
The Tale of Cinnamomum
Cinnamon is a member of the genus Cinnamomum, a family of trees and shrubs that contains approximately 350 different species. Of these, only a few types of evergreen trees are used for making cinnamon.
There are also two main varieties of cinnamon: the so-called true cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon, and cassia. While Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, cassia originated in China. Cassia is also the species most widely used in North America, and whereas it’s noted for its bold spiciness, the milder Ceylon cinnamon offers a subtler but more complex flavor that hints of cloves and citrus.
Cinnamon is harvested by cutting off the outer bark of cinnamon trees and then shaving the inner bark. The inner bark is actually what we know as cinnamon. And as it dries, it naturally curls up into the cinnamon sticks, or quills, we’re familiar with. These quills are then cut into smaller sticks or crushed into cinnamon powder and sent to market.
You can tell the difference between cassia and Ceylon cinnamon by looking at their quills. While cassia quills can be identified by their thick, woody appearance, Ceylon cinnamon quills have many layers and look more like cigars. Ceylon quills are also softer and can be easily crushed by hand.
And if all you cinnamon lovers out there are thinking that chopping down cinnamon trees is decidedly not environmentally friendly, the good news is that the tree stumps that are left after the trees are felled actually grow new cinnamon trees for several generations.
Cinnamon Health Benefits
Cinnamon contains a number of important chemicals, but two—cinnamaldehyde and eugenol—are responsible for many of its health benefits. Cinnamaldehyde is also behind cinnamon’s distinctive flavor and scent. However, while both cassia and Ceylon cinnamon contain cinnamaldehyde, cassia doesn’t contain eugenol.
Cinnamaldehyde and eugenol are also responsible for many of cinnamon’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antifungal, antiprotozoal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties.
Cinnamon’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties alone make this rich, flavorful spice worth having around. In fact, studies have found that cinnamon is a more efficient antioxidant than almost any other spice, including garlic.
Moreover, many of the diseases we deal with are a direct result of oxidative stress and inflammation. But antioxidants help reduce the risk of developing these diseases by scavenging the free radicals that cause oxidative stress and lead to inflammation.
A recent rodent study even found that the antioxidant properties of cinnamaldehyde and eugenol reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis without the side effects associated with traditional rheumatoid arthritis medications.
And a 2013 meta-analysis found that cinnamon aids in wound healing and protects against gastric ulcers and liver damage as well as the buildup of the abnormal proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
And these are just two studies among many that have documented the powerful effects of cinnamon.
Let’s now take a closer look at some of cinnamon’s other potential benefits.
Cinnamon for Colds
The jury may still be out on whether cinnamon can cure the common cold, but a 2015 study found that both cassia and Ceylon cinnamon are effective against a virus known to infect bacteria, and researchers hypothesized that a tablespoon of cinnamon a day could be effective in preventing and treating colds and flu—something you may want to keep in mind when the next flu season rolls around.
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of cinnamon also mean that the spice could be helpful in reducing common cold symptoms, including sore throat and stuffy nose. These effects may be even more pronounced by combining raw honey and cinnamon.
Not only does the high viscosity of honey mean it’s great for soothing a sore throat, but studies have also found that it’s more powerful than the cough suppressant dextromethorphan, which makes it a perfect alternative to over-the-counter cough syrups.
To get the potential benefits of cinnamon and honey, simply add a teaspoon of cinnamon and spoonful of raw honey to hot water and sip. You can jazz up your honey and cinnamon tea even further by adding a dash of lemon juice for extra antioxidants and vitamin C.
Another cinnamon cold remedy makes use of ginger root. Like cinnamon, ginger has known antiviral properties and has been found to be effective against the viruses responsible for the common cold. Combining ground cinnamon and ginger to create a pleasing hot tea can help relieve a sore throat, loosen phlegm, and unclog nasal passages, making it easier to breathe. And to get even more benefits, just add some freshly squeezed lemon and raw honey.
Cinnamon for Heart Health
Cinnamon may be an effective natural remedy in the fight against heart disease as well. In fact, several studies have shown that the culinary spice can lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar—all known risk factors in the development of heart disease.
Animal studies have found that cinnamon acts as a vasodilator, relaxing blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. Likewise, a 2015 meta-analysis documented two studies that demonstrated a significant lowering of blood pressure in diabetic patients.
And a 2012 rodent study found that cinnamon lowered lipids as well as the widely used cholesterol-lowering drug simvastatin.
Cinnamon’s strong antioxidant properties may also play a role in preventing heart disease by mitigating the effects of free radicals, which are known to damage both heart tissue and artery walls.
Cinnamon for Diabetes
Cinnamon may be best known for its ability to help lower blood sugar levels, a finding that’s been noted by several studies. A 2003 study found that cinnamon is effective in reducing both blood sugar and lipids in people with type 2 diabetes. This led researchers to suggest cinnamon may be useful for reducing risk factors associated with both diabetes and heart disease.
Studies have also found that cinnamon speeds up metabolism and reduces the body’s response to high-fat foods—two findings that may aid in the prevention of obesity, a significant risk factor for diabetes.
Cinnamon for Oral Health
As mentioned, cinnamon has proven antibacterial properties. It’s even been shown to be effective against several types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These effects extend to oral bacteria as well.
For example, a 2011 study found that cinnamon oil is able to inhibit a wide range of harmful oral bacteria and is even more effective than clove oil at eradicating Streptococcus mutans—the main culprit in the development of cavities.
Cinnamon for Cancer
Multiple studies have documented the potential role cinnamon may play in the prevention and treatment of cancer. A 2018 meta-analysis found that cinnamon inhibits both the development and progression of various types of cancer and can trigger cell death and stop the formation of blood vessels that feed tumor growth.
Researchers were so impressed by the available evidence that they concluded by saying that cinnamon has “profound anticarcinogenic efficacy” and should be incorporated into standardized cancer treatment and prevention.
Aromatic Benefits of Cinnamon
What discussion of cinnamon would be complete without at least a nod to its warm and comforting aroma?
Just a whiff of cinnamon baking in a pie or cinnamon essential oil wafting out of a diffuser can instantly elevate mood and reduce stress.
But did you know that cinnamon is also a natural insect repellent? In fact, a 2004 study found it can even kill mosquito larvae.
And you know how fried food and fish can leave everything smelling like, well, grease and fish for hours on end? Cinnamon can help you get rid of that too. Simply add a couple cinnamon sticks to equal parts boiling water and vinegar and watch those awful smells disperse and freshness return to your home.
We’re sure we’ve got you itching to pull out the cinnamon and experience its health benefits for yourself. But before you do, there’s one last thing we need to point out.
Unlike Ceylon cinnamon, cassia contains high amounts of a chemical called coumarin, derivatives of which are widely used as anticoagulants. In fact, cinnamon in amounts greater than a teaspoon can lead to liver damage in people who are susceptible.
So if you’re interested in adding cinnamon to your natural health care routine, you may want to focus your attention on Ceylon cinnamon, which contains approximately 250 times less coumarin than cassia and can be safely consumed in amounts up to about 2-1/2 teaspoons a day.
As we’ve seen, the potential benefits of cinnamon are vast, and science is only now just beginning to unravel the secrets of the many compounds that give cinnamon its unique properties. So we still have a lot to learn, but when it comes to this ancient and beloved spice, we may finally be rediscovering the wisdom of our ancestors.