Cinnamon & Chromium
Cinnamon and Chromium
Counteract the Metabolic Syndrome
They thus help prevent the metabolic syndrome’s
two main consequences: diabetes and cardiovascular disease
By Will Block
f you own a dog or a cat, you probably love your furry friend dearly and consider it to be as much a member of the family as anyone else. Naturally, you want the best for your pet so as to ensure a long, healthy, happy life. Now suppose your veterinarian told you about a disease that could seriously undermine your pet’s health and increase the chances of its premature demise. And suppose the vet mentioned that the signs and symptoms of this disease were the same as those of a deficiency in a certain nutrient in your pet’s diet. What would you do?
Silly question. You would, of course, make sure that Fido or Fluffy got adequate amounts of that nutrient. But would you show as much concern for your own health as that of your beloved pet? Oddly, many people don’t. While lavishing care on their pets (and their kids, of course), they give themselves short shrift in the health department. Their concern for others at the expense of their own well-being may seem noble to some, but it’s unnecessary and ultimately foolish.
What would it take to get their attention? Perhaps a statement such as the following, by Dr. Richard A.
Anderson, a research chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville, MD:
The signs and symptoms of Cr [chromium] deficiency are the same as those for the metabolic syndrome, i.e. elevated fasting glucose [blood sugar], elevated TAG [triacylglycerols, aka triglycerides, or fats], low HDL [high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, the “good cholesterol”], hypertension, and visceral obesity. The hallmark sign of Cr deficiency is impaired glucose tolerance, and there have been numerous reports of beneficial effects on individuals with impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes.
Put Your Pedal to the Metal—Chromium
Dr. Anderson is a leading authority on the use of nutritional supplements in combating type 2 diabetes and its precursor condition, insulin resistance, which causes impaired glucose tolerance. He is well known for his research with chromium (an essential trace mineral in human nutrition), which has been shown in numerous studies to help prevent diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD), in part through its beneficial effects in preventing weight gain.*
Clearly, if the symptoms of chromium deficiency are as Anderson described them, and if these symptoms add up to the metabolic syndrome, which is a pathway to major chronic illness, one would be foolish not to obtain an adequate daily amount of chromium—easily done through supplementation. It would be wrong, however, to assume that chromium by itself can prevent the metabolic syndrome—it cannot. That goal can be achieved, however, through wise lifestyle choices primarily involving healthy nutrition (of which adequate chromium intake is a small but important part) and regular exercise; the value of the latter cannot be overemphasized.
Metabolic Syndrome—The Path to Diabetes and CVD
But what, exactly, is the metabolic syndrome? Perhaps because of its somewhat vague name, it’s not well known to the public, even though it’s rampant in our society.* More than 50 million Americans have it, at grave peril to their health and prospective lifespan. Most alarmingly, the incidence of metabolic syndrome is soaring among adolescents, in parallel with their soaring rate of obesity (in kids, the syndrome is seen almost exclusively in the overweight or obese).
The metabolic syndrome is a group of five major risk factors that are linked to insulin resistance and an increased risk of
diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Individually and collectively, these risk factors represent serious dysfunctions of our metabolism. (For a refresher on metabolism, which is the very essence of life, see the sidebar on this subject.) The syndrome has been known to the medical profession for at least half a century, but its complex pathophysiology is still not fully understood.
Metabolism Means Change
The German word for metabolism, Stoffwechsel, means “substance change.” That, in a nutshell, describes metabolism—it’s the sum total of the chemical changes occurring among the myriad substances in our body and arising from the body’s unceasing demand for matter (oxygen, food, and water) and energy. In other words, metabolism (from the Greek metabolē, change) encompasses all the chemical reactions by which a substance is assimilated and incorporated into the body or is detoxified and excreted from the body.
This vast subject can be broken down into more manageable chunks. For starters, there are two main types of metabolism. One is catabolism, in which larger, more complex molecules, such as proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids, are decomposed to smaller, simpler ones, with the release of chemical energy. An obvious example is the digestion of food, much of which winds up as glucose. Glucose, in turn, is catabolized in our cells to carbon dioxide and water (via a long, complicated series of reactions with many intermediate products).* Another example of catabolism is the conversion of a triglyceride (a fat) to three fatty acid molecules and a molecule of glycerol.
Intermediary metabolism, highly simplified by showing only the major categories of metabolic pathways. From Richard Wheeler (Zephyris), 2007, on Wikipedia.
The opposite of catabolism is anabolism, in which smaller, simpler molecules are used to synthesize larger, more complex ones, with the input of chemical energy derived from catabolic processes. For example, some of our glucose is polymerized to glycogen for storage in the liver and muscles, and some of it is converted to fatty acids—and some of our fatty acids are converted to fat. Other examples of anabolism are the linking of amino acids to make proteins, and of phosphoribonucleotides to make nucleic acids.
Clearly, catabolism (destructive metabolism) and anabolism (constructive metabolism) are related—their roles are complementary, and they occur concurrently in all cells, all the time. The energy “currency” generated in catabolism is quickly used up in anabolism. It consists mainly of life’s master energy molecule, adenosine
triphosphate (ATP), which stores chemical energy in the form of high-energy phosphate bonds. ATP activates biomolecules and drives, directly or indirectly, most of the biosynthesis, development, regulation, and repair processes required for life.
Energy metabolism, which occurs in all cells, is the totality of reactions that provide chemical energy to drive life processes or that release thermal energy (heat) or kinetic energy (energy of motion) to the external world. Its rate varies greatly depending on the needs of the moment. The minimum value is the basal metabolic rate, the rate at which the body uses chemical energy in order to maintain vital functions while it’s in a fasting state at complete rest in a comfortably warm environment.
Closely related is respiratory metabolism, which involves the exchange of gases in the lungs and the oxidation of nutrients in tissues. The latter process, cellular energy metabolism, is often called cellular respiration because it consumes oxygen and releases carbon dioxide.
Also critically important is first-pass metabolism, which is the alteration or degradation, in the intestines and the liver, of food and orally ingested supplements and drugs. All such substances pass from the stomach into the duodenum, where most digestion takes place and where first-pass metabolism begins. Everything that passes through the intestinal wall then goes straight to the liver, where first-pass metabolism is completed before anything can enter the general circulation. Often what remains consists largely of metabolites (products of metabolism), with little of the original substance left. And whatever does enter the circulation is subject to further metabolism.
The Five Main Risk Factors for Metabolic Syndrome
The five risk factors that define the metabolic syndrome are the products of some combination of aging, genetic predisposition, poor diet, and physical inactivity. The more of these risk factors an individual has, the greater are his or her risks for diabetes and CVD.
To be considered to have the metabolic syndrome, a person must have at least three—any three—of the risk factors at or beyond a certain level. If three are present, the other two are probably not far behind, because all five arise from multiple, tightly linked biochemical abnormalities, and all are interrelated, primarily through their connections with the one that is central to the syndrome: insulin resistance.
Following are the five risk factors, with their associated threshold values for “qualification” as part of the metabolic syndrome (MS):
- Visceral obesity – Also called abdominal obesity or central obesity, this is excessive fat around the midsection, which is the worst place to have it, in terms of the risk it poses to your health. The most obvious measure of it is your waist size. For men, the MS threshold value is 40 in. (102 cm), and for women, it’s 35 in. (89 cm). Lower is better.
- Insulin resistance – This condition is manifested as an elevated plasma glucose (blood sugar) level after fasting for at least 8 hours, a period that gives your gastrointestinal tract ample time to digest all the food from your last meal and deliver the resulting glucose to your bloodstream. For both sexes, the MS threshold value for glucose is 110 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter). Lower is better.
- High triglycerides – These are fats, which typically consist of three long-chain organic acids attached to one glycerol molecule. For both sexes, the MS threshold value for triglycerides is 150 mg/dL. Lower is better.
- Low HDL-cholesterol – This is the “good cholesterol,” the kind you want more of, not less. For men, the MS threshold value for HDL-cholesterol is 40 mg/dL, and for women, it’s 50 mg/dL. Higher is better.
- Hypertension – This is high blood pressure, a major factor in CVD. For both sexes, the MS threshold value for systolic pressure is 130 mmHg, and for diastolic pressure it’s 85 mmHg. For both, lower is better.
Obesity Begets Insulin Resistance, which
Begets a Health Nightmare
The primary cause of insulin resistance, and hence of diabetes, is obesity, which is usually accompanied by hypertension, elevated levels of triglycerides and LDL-cholesterol (the “bad cholesterol”), and low levels of HDL-cholesterol.
Insulin resistance is the gateway to type 2 diabetes, a
disease whose hallmark is impaired glucose metabolism, which leads to chronically high blood glucose levels and associated oxidative stress. This causes pervasive damage to blood vessels and thus to many of the tissues and organs they serve. It also promotes the excessive formation of
advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), which contribute greatly to the chronic degenerative diseases of aging. (For more on this important subject, see
“How and Why to Prevent AGE Damage” in the March 2008 issue.)
Generally speaking, a person with the metabolic syndrome has a 5-fold greater risk for diabetes and a 1.5-to-3-fold greater risk for atherosclerotic CVD (depending on the stage of progression of the MS) than someone who does not. And once a person has diabetes, there is a greatly increased risk for CVD, which is the primary killer of diabetic patients. All these obesity-related problems are relatively easy to avoid through diet and exercise, which are essential for proper weight control. And some supplements can be remarkably helpful.
Spice Up Your Health with Cinnamon
In addition to his work with chromium, Anderson is known for his discovery, in 1990, that cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) is beneficial in alleviating the signs and symptoms of diabetes, by potentiating (increasing the effectiveness of) insulin. Subsequently, in 2001, Anderson and his colleagues showed in laboratory experiments that aqueous extracts of cinnamon powder can potentiate insulin activity more than 20-fold!
It is believed that the compounds responsible for this remarkable effect are bioflavonoid polymers known as procyanidins (type A). They act as insulin mimetics, i.e., they mimic insulin in biochemical processes, not only by facilitating glucose transport into our cells for use in energy metabolism but also by stimulating the synthesis of glycogen, a polymeric form of glucose that our liver and muscles store as a reserve energy supply.
It’s important that our circulating glucose be properly utilized in these ways. It’s especially important that we not have excessive amounts of circulating glucose from overeating or from eating high-glycemic-index meals, because
excessive glucose, in addition to causing the kinds of harm mentioned above, gets converted to fat. (Regarding dietary glycemic control, see
“Glycemic Control—Best for Weight Loss” and
“Erythritol May Help Protect Your Memory” in the September 2007 and March 2008 issues, respectively.)
The procyanidins (type A) are water-soluble. Thus an aqueous extract of cinnamon will contain them (along with any other water-soluble compounds), but not the compounds that are fat-soluble. That’s important, because among the fat-soluble compounds in cinnamon are a few, notably coumarin, an anticoagulant, that are potentially harmful in large (multigram) daily amounts.
Cinnamon—Enemy of Insulin Resistance and the Metabolic Syndrome
In the paper cited at the beginning of this article, Anderson summarized the studies—laboratory, animal, and human—on the benefits of aqueous cinnamon extract in counteracting the effects of insulin resistance, noting that patients with the poorest glycemic control appear to benefit the most.* He concluded by saying,
Dr. Richard A. Anderson and his colleague Marilyn Polansky
Animal and human studies involving subjects with the metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and polycystic ovary syndrome show beneficial effects of Cr, whole cinnamon, and aqueous extracts of cinnamon on glucose, insulin, lipids, and antioxidant status. There also may be effects on lean body mass and body composition, and inflammatory response. All these effects would lead to decreased risk factors associated with diabetes and CVD and improvements in the metabolic syndrome, leading to decreased incidences of these diseases.
Those are excellent reasons to supplement with cinnamon and chromium, especially if your lifestyle choices have not always been the best (or if you’re simply getting old), and elements of the metabolic syndrome are already present. Remember, though, that the primary interventions are diet and exercise, which will set the stage for supplements to help further in retarding the metabolic syndrome, thereby achieving better health and greater resistance to two of the worst degenerative diseases known.
- Anderson RA. Chromium and polyphenols from cinnamon improve
insulin sensitivity. Proc Nutr Soc 2008;67:48-53.
- Harding A. Metabolic syndrome on the rise among obese teens. Reuters Health report, Jan. 30, 2008.
- Grundy SM. Metabolic syndrome: connecting and reconciling cardio-
vascular and diabetes worlds. J Am Coll Cardiol 2006;47:1093-100.
Vitamin C & Alpha-Lipoic Acid Reduce Oxidative Stress
With the drug streptozotocin, scientists can induce diabetes in rodents. This is useful in diabetes research, as the studies sometimes suggest potential therapies for human patients. One area of particular interest is the use of antioxidants to combat diabetes, because much research has shown that oxidative stress—the cumulative effects of reactive oxygen species, including free radicals—plays a major role in the development of the disease and in the damage it causes.
Recently, researchers in Turkey used mice with
streptozotocin-induced diabetes to study the effects of
vitamin C and alpha-lipoic acid on oxidative stress. Both of these compounds are members of the body’s
antioxidant network, which also includes vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, and glutathione. These compounds are capable not only of exerting direct antioxidant action against free radicals but also of helping to regenerate other members of the network when their antioxidant potency has been nullified by interactions with free radicals.
In the Turkish study, the researchers sought to determine whether the regenerative power of vitamin C and alpha-lipoic acid also extended to two of the body’s most important antioxidant enzymes, namely, catalase and
superoxide dismutase, for both of which the enzymatic activity is substantially diminished in diabetes.* They found that, indeed, both vitamin C and alpha-lipoic acid significantly increased the activity of the two antioxidant enzymes in liver tissue, providing further evidence of the importance of the body’s antioxidant network in combating diabetes.
- Sadi G, Yilmaz Ö, Güray T. Effect of vitamin C and lipoic acid on streptozotocin-induced diabetes gene expression: mRNA and protein expressions of Cu-Zn SOD and catalase. Mol Cell Biochem 2008;309:109-16.
Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.