Cinnamon and Insulin
By Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent, UH CTAHR
Diabetes is an epidemic in the Hawaiian community, and many recent deaths on Molokai can be attributed to diabetes. The search for solutions in slowing the onset and also mitigating conditions related to sugar and fat metabolism is a challenge for many. For those with type 2 diabetes, the daily intake of insulin has been the prescribed regimen, but like a song with a rhyme to it, cinnamon and insulin may be just what the doctor ordered.
Impaired sugar and fat metabolism is present in millions of people and may lead to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas to regulate sugar metabolism. In people with type 2 diabetes, either the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or the body is unable to use it correctly. Both conditions lead to unhealthy blood levels of sugar that would otherwise provide energy to muscles. Researchers reported that taking less than a half-teaspoon of cinnamon daily for 40 days reduced blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels by about 20 percent, using 60 volunteers in Pakistan with type 2 diabetes.
Researchers at the USDA Beltsville, Maryland Human Nutrition Research Center have discovered that certain cinnamon compounds enhance the uptake of insulin and increase the ability of insulin to lower blood sugar levels. While touring the 10,000 acre agricultural research facility a few weeks ago, I heard of this discovery. Beltsville is the national headquarters for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
USDA Researcher Richard A. Anderson, working with other scientists and colleagues, have isolated and characterized several polyphenolic compounds from cinnamon bark that could one day become natural ingredients in products aimed at lowering blood sugar levels. Table cinnamon is made from bark of the cinnamon tree.
“Polyphenols are known for their antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory functions, but they have not been commonly known to improve insulin function,” he said. “These compounds in cinnamon bark have antioxidant effects, which may provide synergistic benefits to persons with various forms of diabetes.” In tests using fat cells, the polyphenolic compounds were found to increase sugar metabolism a whopping 20-fold.
During a decade of efforts to find natural compounds that could help maintain normal blood sugar levels, the scientists tested several components of cinnamon. The researchers also tested scores of other plant extracts, but none displayed insulin-enhancing activity near that of cinnamon.
“These new compounds increase insulin sensitivity by activating key enzymes that stimulate insulin receptors, while inhibiting the enzymes that deactivate them,” Anderson said.
Oil-soluble cinnamon compounds may accumulate in the body if ingested over a long period, and there is no data on potential effects of long-term ingestion of table cinnamon. Some of these compounds may even be toxic, but the water-soluble extracts appear to be safe at high levels. A product on the market called Cinnulin PF is based on this research. Natural compounds are usually sold as nutraceuticals, and do not have to go through rigorous testing through the Food and Drug Administration. However, research on cinnamon and insulin interaction has been going on for a decade at USDA ARS. Regardless, ARS scientists agree that weight loss is the primary factor in improving these numbers.