The Newly Discovered Power of Cinnamon

Revitalize Yourself
Cinnamon Extract for Healthy Blood Sugar
Spice is nice, especially when it could help millions of people with one of life's most vital functions

magine going to your spice rack, opening a jar of cinnamon powder, and just chugging a mouthful of it right down. Yuck! As tasty and delightful as cinnamon is, that's not a very palatable way to get your daily fix of it. How much nicer it is to have a dusting of cinnamon powder on your morning toast, or to enjoy it in your mom's apple pie or spice cake at dinner, or to take some in a big brown pill.

What? Cinnamon in a capsule? Seems unclear on the concept, doesn't it? Well, maybe not, if you consider two things: (1) getting the equivalent of a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon every day may be very good for you, and (2) getting all of what's in a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon every day may not be so good for you, because too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. The pill allows you to get the optimal amount of a certain key component of cinnamon, called methylhydroxychalcone polymer, or MHCP. (Couldn't they just call it Melvin or something?) This compound can help you maintain healthy blood sugar levels - and that's important, as we will soon see.

MHCP came to light as a result of a patriotic event (sort of) that occurred over a decade ago. Dr. Richard Anderson, a chemist at the Human Nutrition Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was conducting tests for antidiabetic effects in various foods when he noticed a strikingly large effect in, of all things, apple pie.1 (What could be more American than that? His mom must have been so pleased.) He and his colleagues traced the effect to the spices in the pie, then to the cinnamon in particular, and eventually to the MHCP in the cinnamon. Dozens of other food products used in folk medicine have been tested for their antidiabetic effects, but so far nothing has come close to that of cinnamon.2

Balanced Blood Sugar Is Vital
MHCP could be very good for you if you have type 2 diabetes (also called adult-onset, or noninsulin-dependent, diabetes), or if you're a candidate for it. Think you're not a candidate? Think again - especially if you don't get enough exercise and you eat a typical Western diet, which everyone knows is too high in sweets and fats. But we just love that stuff, don't we, and we hate the idea of switching to bean sprouts and tofu. Caloric restriction may still be the only sure way we know of for extending lifespan (albeit in animals and not, as yet, in humans), but the key word in lifespan is life, and what fun is life without scrumptious food?

Dr. Anderson's discovery may
hold the promise of significant
help, in the form of a simple,
safe, inexpensive supplement,
for many millions of people.

Life, of whatever span, boils down to a balancing act between the opposing forces of excess and restraint. We all choose our own balance point based on how much we know about the consequences of our actions, how much we care about them, and how much will power we can bring to bear on those that we know are harmful to our health. One thing worth avoiding at almost any cost is diabetes, a disease of blood sugar regulation, for which "balance point" is a good metaphor. (Actually, balance point is a good metaphor for just about any physiological process. For us to stay healthy, tens of thousands of such processes must remain in exquisite biochemical balance in all the cells of our bodies, all the time. It's marvelous, and humbling, to contemplate.)

Are You on the Path to Diabetes?
Worldwide, type 2 diabetes, which typically begins in midlife, is a huge and rapidly growing public health problem, claiming about 100 million victims each year. It is especially prevalent in developed countries with diets that are rich in carbohydrates and fats. In the United States, where this disease is the seventh leading cause of death, an estimated 15 million people have it, and one-third of them don't even know it. Another 13 million have fasting blood sugar levels that are below the diabetes threshold but high enough to put them at high risk.

Strong evidence that type 2 diabetes is a disease of diet and lifestyle is the fact that, when members of any ethnic group move from their homeland to the United States, the incidence of this disease increases, usually dramatically.1 Embracing our diet and our motorized way of life may seem like part of the American dream, but clearly it has its downside. Perhaps the Statue of Liberty should have a sign saying, "Welcome to America. Bring your own food. Ride a bike."

Virtually all adults are at some risk for type 2 diabetes, but a truly alarming trend, according to the American Diabetes Association, is the increasing rate of this disease, worldwide, in teenagers and even younger children. The culprits? Obesity and lack of exercise. Parents who love their kids need a wakeup call in this regard. A fat, lazy kid is on the fast track to premature death.

  1. Carter JS et al. Non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in minorities in the United States. Ann Int Med 1996;125:221-32.

Insulin Regulates Blood Sugar

Blood sugar is glucose, the primary product of the digestion of carbohydrates, and the primary source of chemical energy to make our bodies hum with life. Too little glucose (hypoglycemia), if not quickly corrected, can lead to confusion, coma, even death. Too much glucose (hyperglycemia) is dangerous too, although it is not immediately life-threatening. We need to control our glucose levels to maintain glucose balance. And that's where insulin comes in (so does MHCP, as we'll see shortly).

Type 2 diabetes, which is age-
related, accelerates the aging
process, making its victims older
than their years - which is why
they die prematurely.

Insulin, produced in the pancreas, is a protein hormone that regulates glucose metabolism by acting as the "key" to unlock the molecular gates in our cell walls through which glucose can pass. Controlling that passage is crucial, to ensure that the balance of glucose on both sides of the cell wall is optimal. As we age, however, those gates (they're actually highly specialized protein molecules, called insulin receptors, embedded in the cell walls) tend to lose their sensitivity to insulin - they do not respond as well to it as they used to. This is called insulin resistance. It's a setup for diabetes, because if the glucose can't gain passage into our cells in sufficient quantities, it builds up in our blood and can cause great harm.*

*Some of the excess glucose is removed through a mechanism for which insulin is also responsible. It's converted to a polymeric form called glycogen, which is stored primarily in the liver and muscle tissue. When the body needs more glucose than is currently available (such as during vigorous exercise), the glycogen is converted back to glucose for quick energy. It's a neat system, and one that operates whether one has diabetes or not.

Insulin Resistance Increases with Age

When insulin resistance is significant and there's too much glucose sloshing around in the blood, the brain senses the problem and sends an urgent call to the pancreas: "Make more insulin!" The pancreas obliges, churning it out in greater quantities to compensate for its diminished effectiveness. The idea is to swamp those receptors with insulin molecules so as to overcome the resistance and increase the rate at which glucose is allowed to pass into the cells. And this strategy works - for awhile. The trouble is, though, that we keep getting older, and insulin resistance tends to increase with age. The pancreas eventually can't keep up anymore - it pumps insulin out as fast as it can, but it still isn't enough.

MHCP increases the
sensitivity of insulin receptors,
lowers blood pressure in
laboratory animals, and has
antioxidant properties.

That's bad news for our cells, because now they're not getting enough glucose to provide fuel for all our metabolic needs - not just because of insulin resistance, but also because of impaired blood circulation, a typical symptom of diabetes. Impaired circulation can cause damage throughout the entire body and can even lead to gangrene of the feet and legs. With the cells of various key organs, such as the brain, heart, kidneys, and eyes, starting to deteriorate, the stage is set for such dire consequences as memory loss, heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness. Diabetes is a truly terrible disease.

Preventing Diabetes Is Relatively Easy

Type 2 diabetes is very different from type 1 diabetes (juvenile-onset, or insulin-dependent, diabetes), a disease that strikes mainly in childhood and is characterized by an insulin deficiency rather than an insulin excess. What the two types have in common is the body's inability to maintain proper blood sugar levels. Type 1 can kill quickly unless the disease is meticulously controlled. Type 2, which is age-related, takes years or decades to develop and to wreak its havoc. In doing so, it accelerates the aging process, making its victims older than their years - which is why they die prematurely.

It appears that MHCP can help
those who already have diabetes
keep their disease under control,
and help delay or prevent its
onset in those at risk for it.

The good news, though (and it's about time) is that preventing type 2 diabetes is relatively easy. Here's how: First and foremost, do not become obese (or do not remain obese if you already are), because that's a neon-sign invitation to the disease. Second: do not get older (oh, darn, we haven't worked the bugs out of that one yet - never mind.) Third: make sure you have good genes (that's a tough one too). So back to #1: to avoid or combat obesity, exercise regularly - an hour a day most days each week is great - and maintain a good diet. It need not be bean sprouts and tofu, necessarily, but neither should it be Big Macs and Twinkies. Somewhere midway between those two extremes is probably about right. And that includes occasional sinful delights such as apple pie, which, if mom made it right, contains . . . cinnamon.

Cinnamon Offers Varied Benefits
Cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, mainly. For those whose geography is a bit rusty, that's the large island, formerly called Ceylon, off the southern tip of India (where cinnamon is also grown). The cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum verum), an evergreen, is widely cultivated in these regions. The reddish-brown inner bark harvested from slender young branches is dried in the shade to make one of the world's most popular spices (the cinnamon sticks commonly used in cooking are pieces of rolled bark).

Cinnamon has been in use since at least 2700 B.C., when it was mentioned in Chinese herbals as a treatment for fever, diarrhea, and menstrual problems. In nineteenth century America, physicians prescribed cinnamon for stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, colic, and uterine problems.

It is now known from scientific research that cinnamon has antibacterial properties that should make it useful for some stomach ailments, such as infection with Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers. It is commonly found in toothpastes and mouthwashes, not just because it tastes good, but also because it kills decay-causing bacteria.

MHCP Works Like Insulin

So we're back to cinnamon, finally, and here's where it gets exciting. Now that you know all about diabetes, you can appreciate the significance of Dr. Anderson's discovery, which may hold the promise of significant help, in the form of a simple, safe, inexpensive nutritional supplement, for many millions of people: MHCP, from cinnamon, mimics the function of insulin.3 It helps regulate glucose levels pretty much as insulin does, and almost as well. Without getting into the technical details, what MHCP does is stimulate the insulin-signaling system - the complex series of chemical reactions that results in the passage of glucose through the cell wall - in a manner similar to that of insulin itself.*

*OK, that was a bit technical, and here's one more detail, because it's really interesting: there is evidence suggesting that MHCP, unlike insulin, may have to enter the cell before it exerts its insulin-mimicking action. So it may be an "inside job" - but who cares, as long as it works? Actually, researchers care greatly, because if this hypothesis is verified, it may help to shed fundamental new light on the mechanisms of insulin function and glucose metabolism. That could be a major advance in medical knowledge.

Dr. Anderson's laboratory studies on fat cells have shown that MHCP can produce this effect all by itself, with no insulin present, resulting in a 20-fold increase in the rate of glucose metabolism. That does not mean, however, that MHCP can be considered to be a substitute for insulin in an actual body. We will still need the real thing, but it's good to know that MHCP can give much-needed assistance. One can almost hear the poor, overworked pancreas saying, "Thanks, Melvin!" (The pancreas has limited intelligence and can't remember "MHCP.")

MHCP and Insulin Are Synergistic

It gets even better. The experiments with fat cells have shown that MHCP increases the sensitivity of the insulin receptors to insulin, thus making them, well, more receptive. This could explain why, when insulin and MHCP are administered together, their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects, demonstrating that the two substances are synergistic. It turns out that MHCP also stimulates glycogen synthesis, just as insulin does, and again, the two substances are synergistic in this function.

Another bonus is that MHCP has been found to lower blood pressure in laboratory animals, and yet another is that it has been found to have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are extremely important for good health in many ways and are beneficial against many diseases, including diabetes.

MHCP May Help Prevent Diabetes

Thus it appears likely that MHCP can not only help those who already have diabetes to keep their disease under control, but also to help delay or prevent its onset in those who are at risk for it or who think they might be headed in that direction. This is wonderful news. Furthermore, MHCP is believed to be very safe to use. The same cannot be said for all the other components of cinnamon, especially certain ones that are oil-soluble (MHCP, being water-soluble, is not found in cinnamon oil).*

*You should know, by the way, that most cinnamon sold in the United States is not true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), but the bark of the related cassia tree (Cinnamomum cassia), which contains some of the same aromatic oils and thus has a similar flavor. It is more abundant and thus less expensive than true cinnamon (which itself is not expensive, as spices go).

But there is much more. Other natural nutrients found to help maintain healthy blood sugar levels, are the herbal product goat's rue (Galega officinalis), the flavonoid quercetin, the amino acid derivative N-acetylcysteine, the powerful antioxidant lipoic acid, the minerals chromium and vanadium, and vitamins B6, C, E, and K. (For an overview of the myriad benefits of these nutrients, see the interview with Dr. Jonathan Wright in Life Enhancement, February 2002.)

When you ingest cinnamon, and glucose surges into your bloodstream, those MHCP molecules will be there waiting, ready to team up with your insulin to help keep you healthy.

Caution: If you have diabetes, do not take any supplement that may affect your blood sugar levels without first consulting your physician. Diabetes is a serious disease requiring careful professional management.


  1. Khan A, Bryden NA, Polansky MM, Anderson RA. Insulin potentiating factor and chromium content of selected foods and spices. Biol Trace Elem Res 1990;24:183-8.
  2. Broadhurst CL. Treating type II diabetes nutritionally. Science News, July 1998.
  3. Jarvill-Taylor JK, Anderson RA, Graves DJ. A hydroxychalcone derived from cinnamon functions as a mimetic for insulin in 3T3-L1 adipocytes. J Am Coll Nutr 2001 Aug;20(4):327-36.

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